Avoiding a standards roadblock in releasing public data
We've had some great feedback on our draft guidance on publishing local government spend data both on the blog post and in conversation with practitioners. We hope to improve the guidance soon.
The role of data standards has come up in discussion several times. Along the lines of:
"Surely we need to agree data standards for machine readable data before we publish it?"
The answer of course is 'no'. Local authorities should not wait for the process of agreeing standards or ontologies - they should publish now in line with the Berners Lee principles noting the guidance we set out. By all means engage in standards setting processes, in the long term if you have the spare resources but the data should be published first.
Standards exercises can be valuable. But they can take months or years, consume scarce resources and blunt early enthusiasm. Tim Berners Lee notes:
"There are two philosophies to putting data on the web. The top-down one is to make a corporate or national plan, by getting committees together of all the interested parties, and make a consistent set of terms (ontology) into which everything fits. This in fact takes so long it is often never finished, and anyway does not in fact get corporate or national consensus in the end. The other method experience recommends is to do it bottom up. A top-level mandate is extremely valuable, but grass-roots action is essential. Put the data up where it is: join it together later."
Local authorities do need to share understanding about how to publish data. Our view is that such understanding will only arise through use of data by the public for transparency. And through local authorities physically going through the process of publishing data. We can use this blog and other fora such as the communities of practice to share the experience in real time. Boroughs in London are already using the London Data Store as a way of sharing experiences around publishing data. And colleagues in Warwickshire are using their Open Data store and a Google Group to collaborate.
Rooms full of officials setting abstract standards are unlikely to achieve timely, useful results that provide the transparency Ministers seek by the end of the year. Transparency is about the practical use of the data by people who are not inside government. This community must be engaged at all stages - both as core beneficiaries and to drive the process to meet their need. It is the people's data, after all.