CTC23 – The OD Bods

Introduction

This blog post was written to accompany the work of The OD Bods team at Code the City 23 – The Future of The City

Open data has the power to bring about economic, social, environmental, and other benefits for everyone. It should be the fuel of innovation and entrepreneurship, and provide trust and transparency in government.

But there are barriers to delivering those benefits. These include:

  • Knowing who publishes data, and where,
  • Knowing what data is being published – and when that happens, and
  • Knowing under what licence (how) the data is made available, so that you can use it, or join it together with other agencies’ data.

In a perfect world we’d have local and national portals publishing or sign-posting data that we all could use. These portals would be easy to use, rich with metadata and would use open standards at their core. And they would be federated so that data and metadata added at any level could be found further up the tree. They’d use common data schemas with a fixed vocabulary which would be used as a standard across the public sector. There would be unique identifiers for all identifiable things, and these would be used without exception. 

You could start at your child’s school’s open data presence and get an open data timetable of events, or its own-published data on air quality in the vicinity of the school (and the computing science teacher would be using that data in classes). You could move up to a web presence at the city or shire level and find the same school data alongside other schools’ data; and an aggregation or comparison of each of their data. That council would publish the budget that they spend on each school in the area, and how it is spent. It would provide all of the local authority’s schools’ catchment areas or other LA-level education-specific data sets. And if you went up to a national level you’d see all of that data gathered upwards: and see all Scottish Schools and also see the national data such as SQA results, school inspection reports – all as open data.

But this is Scotland and it’s only six years since the Scottish Government published a national Open Data Strategy; one which committed data publication would be open by default

Looking at the lowest units – the 32 local authorities – only 10, or less than a third, even have any open data. Beyond local government, of the fourteen health boards none publishes open data, and we note that of the thirty Health and Social Care Partnerships only one has open data. Further, in 2020 it was found that of an assumed 147 business units comprising Scottish Government (just try getting data of what comprises what is in the Scottish Government) – 120 have published no data.

And, of course there are no regional or national open data portals. Why would Scottish Government bother? Apart, that is, from that six year old national strategy and an EU report in 2020 from which it was clear that OD done well would benefit the Scottish economy by around £2.21bn per annum? Both of these are referred to in the Digital Strategy for Scotland 2021

Why there is no national clamour around this is baffling. 

And despite there being a clear remit at Scottish Government for implementing the OD Strategy no-one, we are told, measures or counts the performance nationally. Because if you were doing this poorly, you’d want to hide that too, wouldn’t you? 

And, for now, there is no national portal. There isn’t even one for the seven cities, let alone all 32 councils. Which means there is 

  • no facility to aggregate open data on, say, planning, across all 32 councils. 
  • no way to download all of the bits of the national cycle paths from their custodians. 
  • no way to find out how much each spends on taxis etc or the amount per pupil per school meal. 

There is, of course, the Spatial Hub for Scotland, the very business model of which is designed (as a perfect example of the law of unintended consequences) to stifle the publication of open data by local government. 

So, if we don’t have these things, what do we have?

What might we expect?

What should we expect from our councils – or even our cities? 

Here are some comparators

Remember, back about 2013 , both Aberdeen and Edinburgh councils received funding from Nesta Scotland to be part of Code For Europe where they learned from those cities above. One might have expected that by now they’d have reached the same publication levels as these great European cities by now? We’ll see soon. 

But let’s be generous. Assume that each local authority in Scotland could produce somewhere between 100 and 200 open data sets. 

  • Scotland has 32 local authorities 
  • Each should be able to produce 100  – 200 datasets per authority  – say 150 average

= 150 x 32 = 4800 data sets.

The status quo

Over the weekend our aim was to look in detail at each of Scotland’s 32 local authorities and see which was publishing their data openly – to conform with the 2015 Open Data Strategy for Scotland. What did we find?

Our approach

As we’ve noted above there is no national portal. And no-one in Scottish Government is counting or publishing this data. So, following the good old adage, “if you want something done, do it yourself”, a few of us set about trying to pull together a list of all the open datasets for Scotland’s 7 cities and the other 25 authorities. For the naive amongst us, it sounded like an easy thing to do. But getting started even became problematic. Why?

  1. Only some councils had any open data – but which?
  2. Only some of those had a landing page for Open Data. Some had a portal. Some used their GIS systems. 
  3. Those that did provide data used different categories. There was no standardised schema. 
  4. For others, some had a landing page but then additional datasets were being found elsewhere on their websites
  5. Contradictory licence references on pages – was it open or not?

We also looked to see if there was already a central hub of sorts upon which we could build. We found reference to Open Data on Scottish Cities Alliance website but couldn’t find any links to open data. 

Curiosity then came into play, why were some councils prepared to publish some data and others so reluctant? What was causing the reluctancy? And for those publishing, why were all datasets not made open, what was the reason for selecting the ones they had chosen?

What we did

Our starting point was to create a file to allow us to log the source of data found. As a group, we decided upon headers in the file, such as the type of file, the date last updated to name but a few.

From previous CTC events which we attended we knew that Ian had put a lot of effort previously into creating a list of council datasets – IW’s work of 2019 and 2020 which became our starting source. We also knew that Glasgow and Edinburgh were famous for having large, but very out of date, open data portals which were at some point simply switched off. 


We were also made aware of another previous attempt from the end of 2020 to map out the cities’ open data. The screenshot below (Fig 1) is from a PDF by Frank Kelly of DDI Edinburgh which compared datasets across cities in Scotland. You can view the full file here.

Fig 1 From an analysis of Scottish Cities’s open data by Frank Kelly of DDI Edinburgh, late 2020 or early 2021

For some councils, we were able to pull in a list of datasets using the CKAN API. That worked best of all with a quick bit of scripting to gather the info we needed. If all cities, and other authorities did the same we’d have cracked it all in a few hours! But it appears that there is no joined up thinking, no sharing of best practices, no pooling of resources at play in Scotland. Surely COSLA, SCA, SOCITM and other groups could get their heads together and tackle this? 

For others there were varying degrees of friction. We could use the arcGIS API to gather a list of data sets. But the arcGIS API tied us up in knots trying to get past the sign in process, i.e. did we need an account or could we use it anonymously – it was difficult to tell. Luckily with an experienced coder in our team we were able to make calls to the API and get responses – even if these were verbose and needed manual processing afterwards. This post from Terence Eden “What’s your API’s “Time To 200”?” is really relevant here! 

For the rest it was a manual process of going into each city/council website and listing files. With three of us working on it for several hours. We succeeded in pulling together the datasets from the different sources into our csv file

One council trying to publish open data but the quality, and the up-to-date-ness was questionable

Ultimately, the sources were so varied and difficult to navigate that it took 5 digitally-skilled individuals a full day, that is 30 man-hours, to pull this data together. Yet if we have missed any, as we are sure to have done, it may be because they have moved or are hidden away. Let us know if there are more. 

From this output it became clear that there was no consistency in the types of files in which the data was being provided and no consistency in the refresh frequency. This makes it difficult to see a comprehensive view in a particular subject across Scotland (because there are huge gaps) and makes it difficult for someone not well versed in data manipulation to aggregate datasets, hence reducing usability and accessibility. After all, we want everyone to be able to use the data and not put barriers in the way.

We have a list, now what

We now had a list of datasets in a csv file, so it was time to work on understanding what was in it. Using Python in Jupyter Notebooks, graphs were used to analyse the available datasets by file type, the councils which provided it, and how the data is accessed. This made it clear that even among the few councils which provide any data, there is a huge variation in how they do that. There is so much to say about the findings of this analysis, that we are going to follow it up with a blog post of its own.

Unique Datasets by Council
Unique dattes by council and filetype
Average filetypes provided for each data set by Council

One of our team also worked on creating a webpage (not currently publicly-accessible) to show the data listings and the graphs from the analysis. It also includes a progress bar to show the number of datasets found against an estimated number of datasets which could be made available – this figure was arbitrary but based on a modest expectation of what any local authority could produce. As you saw above, we set this figure much lower than we see from major cities on the continent.

What did we hope to achieve?

A one stop location where links to all council datasets could be found. 

Consistent categories and tags such that datasets containing similar datasets could be found together. 

But importantly we wanted to take action – no need for plans and strategies, instead we took the first step.

What next?

As we noted at the start of this blog post, Scotland’s approach Open Data is not working. There is a widely-ignored national strategy. There is no responsibility for delivery, no measure of ongoing progress, no penalty for doing nothing and some initiatives which actually work against the drive to get data open. 

Despite the recognised economic value of open data – which is highlighted in the 2021 Digital Strategy but was also a driver for the 2015 strategy! – we still have those in government asking why they should publish and looking specifically to Scotland (a failed state for OD) for success stories rather than overseas. 

 We’ve seen closed APIs being, we assume, to try to measure use. We suspect the thinking goes something like this:

A common circular argument

In order for open data to be a success in Scotland we need it to be useful, usable, and used. 

Useful

That means the data needs to be geared towards those who will be using it: students, lecturers, developers, entrepreneurs, data journalists, infomediaries. Think of the campaign in 2020 led by Ian to get Scottish Government to publish Covid data as open data, and what has been made of it by Travelling Tabby and others to turn raw data into something of use to the public.

Usable

The data needs to be findable, accessible, and well structured. It needs to follow common standards for data and the metadata. Publishers need to collaborate – coordinate data releases across all cities, all local authorities. ‘Things’ in the data need to use common identifiers across data sets so that they can be joined together, but the data needs to be usable by humans too. 

Used

The data will only be used if the foregoing conditions are met. But government needs to do much more to stimulate its use: to encourage, advertise, train, fund, and invest in potential users. 

The potential GDP rewards for Scotland are huge (est £2.21bn per annum) if done well. But that will not happen by chance. If the same lacklustre, uninterested, unimaginative mindsets are allowed to persist; and no coordination applied to cities and other authorities, then we’ll see no more progress in the next six years than we’ve seen in the last. 

While the OGP process is useful, bringing a transparency lens to government, it is too limited. Government needs to see this as an economic issue as is the case, and one which the current hands-off approach is failing. We also need civic society to get behind this, be active, visible, militant and hold government to account. What we’ve seen so far from civic society is at best complacent apathy. 

Scotland could be great at this – but the signs, so far, are far from encouraging!

Team OD Bods (Karen, Pauline, Rob, Jack, Stephen and Ian)

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