Devon Data Loom

Putting Devon's open data to work


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Pointless data

Today I’d like to talk about how nearly all of the commentators on the data scene at the moment are completely missing the point.

Fighting talk, eh? I think it’s accurate through. There are huge circular discussions going on about whether something is big data or open data; whether it’s open data or personal data; whether it’s public if it’s personal, whether it’s still open if it’s big, whether it’s still big if it’s personal. And so on and so forth at length across all possible media channels. Then there are the providers of data services circling to offer tools and stores and platforms and all manner of technical assistance. Some of those offerings are quite good, too, but still …

I say it doesn’t matter whether it’s open or big – or both – if it’s unusable for any practical purpose. It’s not enough to have the data, there has to be something more.

Interesting fact; I was taught that data is the plural of datum, Latin for “that which is given”. Since then I’ve always thought of data as something which asks a question, not answers it. Given this data, what can you make of it? What does it tell you? Given this, then what?

Data has a point; it’s to help people understand the reality the data represents so they can make decisions about how to affect that reality. Once we worry exclusively about managing the data, we forget that we’re supposed to be managing the reality. We start drawing dragons in the white spaces on the map, basically, because we don’t know what’s really there and we’d like to hope there are really dragons*.

But here’s the real point; people who have more information make better-informed decisions. Not necessarily better decisions, because we are human after all, but they decide based on more evidence about what the options are and what those options mean.

* or maybe that’s just me …


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Answering the right question

Turning data into intelligence is a complex, careful and┬áskilled process that is often completely wasted. I mean totally, wholly unappreciated because we miss a step; we don’t sit down at the start and say “What do people need to do with this?”. And the recipient, the customer, looks at the results and says “This doesn’t answer my question!”

The question that a lot of infographics and charts actually answer is “How can I show the data I’ve got?” which is not what the customer needs. So we patiently work through the customer’s requirements until we reach the answer to their original question, but in a perfect world we would have cut that process to the bone by starting with the question in the first place.

In local government we don’t have the luxury of giving much resource to each single follow up enquiry, especially as we have so much reporting to do to external examiners and auditors, but we also don’t have the option not to provide what our leaders ask for. I’m aware of many data teams who are stretched beyond belief with the effort of keeping everybody informed and all the external requirements compliant.

So while there’s a lot of discussion out there about meeting the technical challenges for big data, open data, small data, personal data … that’s fine and all, but there’s less conversation around a different type of challenge, which is this: Why aren’t we answering the right questions?

If you follow my personal blog you’ll know I specialise in simplifying things down until they squeak … but I just tell it how I see it. Certainly in my work environment we want to know whether the things we do are the right things, whether we are doing them right, whether we are paying a reasonable amount for them, and whether we are reaching the people who need to be helped.

I think the solution is (or begins with) communicating the real question and the reason the question was asked. That’s something for the customer side to consider. For the data people – we need to understand the challenges our customers are trying to address before we can spot whether they’ve failed to ask the question they should have asked.


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Building it

We’ve heard a bit lately about the whole “if you build it they will come” fallacy, especially around open data. It isn’t enough to put a load of links in a web page and expect people to get on with it. The question is, why not?

There are all sorts of good reasons, and perhaps we think we know what they are, but there’s no substitute for actually asking the people who aren’t turning up. Ah, but … they’re not here. So we can’t ask them.

So, a question to the people who are here – what does this place need? We want to reach out to developers, analysts, truth seekers and armchair auditors everywhere and find out what needs to happen to bring them together. We aim to do this through this website, through talking to our clever and lovely friends in all the above groups, and finally by offering some social gatherings. We’re prepared to stretch to free cake if we think it will work.

We’re starting with Devon County Council’s Open Data Forum on the 27th of February, and if we get enough encouraging signals we’ll continue with more of the same.

So really we’re building it so when they do come, they have somewhere to come to.