The year just past has been a pivotal one for Code The City, we’ve moved into a new home, expanded our operations, engaged with new communities of people, and started to put in place solid planning which will be underpinned by expansion and better governance.
Here are some of the highlights from 2019.
Sponsors, volunteers and attendees
We couldn’t do what we do without the help of some amazing people. With just three trustees (Bruce, Steve and Andrew) and Ian our CEO, we couldn’t cover such a range of activities without serious help. Whether you come to our events, volunteer, or your company sponsors our work, you are making a difference in Aberdeen.
Listing things is always dangerous as the potential to miss people out is huge. But here we go!
Our regular volunteers – Vanessa, Zoe, Attakrit, Charlotte, and Shibo – plus the several parents who stay to help too, all help mentor the kids at Young City Coders club.
Lee, Carlos, Scott, Rob who are on the steering group of the Python User Group meetup.
Naomi, Ian N, David, and Gavin who are on the steering group for Air Aberdeen along with Kevin from 57 North who supervises the building of new sensor devices.
The ONE Tech Hub, and ONE Codebase have created a great space not only for us to work in, but also in which to run our public-facing events.
Everyone who stays behind to help us clear away plates, cups and uneaten food – or nips out to the shops when we run out of milk.
Apologies to anyone we have missed!
And finally YOU – everyone who has attended one of or sessions – you’ve helped make Aberdeen a little bit better place to live in. Thank you!
We ran four hack events this year. Here is a quick run-down.
Air Quality 1
We kicked off 2019 with the CTC15 AIr Quality hack in February. This saw us create fourteen new devices which people took home to install and start gathering data. We also had a number of teams looking at the data coming from the sensors, and some looking at how we could use LoraWAN as a data transport network. We set some targets for sensor numbers which were, in retrospect, perhaps a little ambitious. We set up a website (https://airaberdeen.org)
Air Quality 2
Unusually for us we had a second event on the same theme in quick succession: CTC16 in June. Attendees created another fourteen devices. We developed a better model for the data, improved on the website and governance of the project. We got great coverage on TV, on radio and in local newspapers.
Make Aberdeen Better
CTC17 came along in November. The theme was a broad one – what would you do to make Aberdeen a better place to live, work or play? Attendees chose four projects to work on: public transport, improved methods of monitoring air quality, how we might match IT volunteers to charities needing IT help, and the open data around recycling.
CTC18, our final hack of the year was another themeless one, timed to fit into a single day. We asked participants to come and work on a pet side-project, or to help someone else with theirs. Despite a lower turnout in the run-up to Christmas, we still had eight projects being worked on during the day.
New home, service
In the late summer the ONE Tech Hub opened and we moved in as one of the first tenants. So far we rent a single desk in the co-working space but we aim to expand that next year. The building is great, which is why we run all of our events there now, and as numbers grow it promises to fulfil its promise as the bustling centre of Aberdeen’s tech community.
Having started a new Data Meet-up in 2018 we moved that to ONE Tech Hub along with our hack events. We also kicked off a new Python User group in September this year, the same year as we started to deliver Young City Coders sessions to encourage youngsters to get into coding, using primarily Scratch and Python.
We also ran our first WikiMedia Editathon in August – using WIkipedia, WIki Commons and Wikidata to capture and share some of the history of Aberdeen’s cinemas using these platforms. We are really supportive of better using all of the wikimedia tools. Ian recently attended a three-day course to become a wikimedia trainer. And at CTC18 there were two projects using wikidata and wiki commons too. Expect much more of this next year!
Some recognition and some numbers
We’ve been monitoring our reach and impact this year.
In March we were delighted to see that Code The City made it onto the Digital Social Innovation For Europe platform. This project was to identify organisations and projects across the EU who are making an impact using tech and data for civic good.
In July we appeared for the first time in an Academic journal – in an article about using a hackathon to bring together health professionals, data scientists and others to address health challenges.
We will be launching our dashboard in the New Year. Meantime, here are some numbers to chew on.
We ran four sessions, detailed above. We had 102 attendees and 15 facilitators who put in a total of 1,872 hours of effort on a total of 20 projects. All of this was for civic benefit.
Young City Coders
We ran six sessions of our Young City Coders which started in September. The sessions had a total of 114 kids attending and 28 mentors giving up two hours or more.
In 2019 we had 12 data meet-ups with 28 speakers and 575 attendees! This is becoming a really strong local community of practitioners and researchers from academia and local industry.
Each of our four sessions from September to December had a speaker, and attracted a total of 112 attendees who were set small project tasks.
The year ahead
2020 is going to see CTC accelerate its expansion. We’re recruiting two new board members, and we have drawn up a business plan which we will share soon. That should see us expand the team and strengthen our ability to drive positive societal change through tech, data and volunteering. We have two large companies considering providing sponsorship for new activities next year. We’ll also be looking at improving our fundraising – widening the range of sources that we approach for funding, and allowing us to hire staff for the first time.
We’re long-term champions of open data as many of you will have read in previous posts. We’ve identified the need to strengthen the Open Data community in Scotland and to contribute beyond our own activities. Not only has Ian joined the Civic side of Open Government Partnership, and is leading on Commitment three of that to improve open data provision, but he has also joined the board of the Data Commons Scotland programme at Stirling University.
Scottish Open Data Unconference
Beyond that we have created, and we are going to run, the Scottish Open Data Unconference in March. This promises to be a great coming together of the data community including academia, government, developers, and publishers. If you haven’t yet signed up please do so now – there are only 11 tickets of 90 still available. We’ll also need volunteers to help run it: scribes for sessions, helping to orientate new visitors, covering reception, photography, blogging etc. Let us know how you could help.
We look forward to working with you all in the New Year and wish you all a peaceful and relaxing time over the festive period.
Note: this blog post first appeared on codethecity.co.uk in February 2019 and has been archived here with a redirect from the original URL.
Scotland’s provision of open data may be slowly improving, but it is a long way behind the rest of the UK. In my most recent trawl through websites and portals I found a few minor improvements, which are positive, but progress is too slow; some data providers are slipping backwards; and most others are still ignoring the issue altogether. Now is the time for the Scottish Government to act to fix this drag on the Scottish economy and society, and stop inhibiting innovation.
Over the last week, I have conducted yet another trawl of Scottish Open Data websites and portals. I keep this updated on this Github Repo. I’ve carried out this research without assistance, in my own time. The review could be more comprehensive, frequent and robust if I was supported to do it.
This work builds on previous pieces of research I’ve carried out and articles that I have written. Recently, I’ve created an index of those blog posts here as much for my own convenience of finding and linking to them as anything.
During this latest trawl, I’ve tried to better capture the wide spread of Scottish Government departments, agencies, non-departmental public bodies, health boards, local authorities, health and social care partnerships and academic institutions; and assess each sector using quite conservative measures.
The output of that, as we will see below, does not paint a good picture of Scotland’s performance, despite a few very good examples of people doing good work despite a clear policy gap.
Let us look at this sector by sector, following the list of findings here.
Of Scotland’s 32 local authorities, only 19 produce open data of any kind. This group uses a mixture of open data portals (10), web landing pages (7) and GIS systems (2). This leaves 13 who produce no open data whatsoever.
Those 19 councils (ignoring the other 13) produce a total of 731 datasets, giving a mean for the group of 38 and a median of 17 datasets. This total is only six more than I found three months ago, despite Dumfries and Galloway launching a new portal with 33 datasets !
Also, stagnation is a real issue. For example, it is worth noting once again that while Edinburgh produces an impressive 234 open data sets, only five of those have been updated in the last six months, and 228 of them date from 2014-2017. While there is a value in retaining historic data ( allowing comparisons, trends etc to be analysed), the value of data which is not being updated diminishes rapidly.
When I ran the OD programme for Aberdeen City Council (which, like all Scottish councils, is a unitary authority), based on some back-of-the-envelope calculations I reckoned that we could reasonably expect to have about 250 data sets. So, if each of the 32 did the same, as we would expect, then we’d have 8,000 datasets from local authorities alone. This puts the 731 current figure into perspective.
So far, I have found the following open data being produced:
Just four geospatial datasets for download on the Spatial Hub
Six Linked open data sets, licensed under OGL, on the SEPA site.
Great interactive mapping of the Scottish Indices of Multiple Deprivation, for which the source Data is included above on the Statistics Portal mentioned above.
That makes a total of 353 datasets. I’ve not tracked these number previously, so can’t say if they are rising, but there certainly appears to be good progress and some good quality work going on to make Scottish Government data available openly. This includes the four newly-opened sets of boundary data by the Spatial Hub, out of 33 data sets.
However, if we look at the breadth of agencies etc that comprises the Scottish Government, it is clear that there are many gaps. In addition to the parent body of the Scottish Government there are a further 33 Directorates, 9 Agencies, and 92 Non-Departmental Public Bodies. That’s a total of 135 business units.
Let’s assume that they could each produce a conservative 80 data sets, and it is arguable that that should be considerably higher, then we’d expect 10,800 datasets to be released. Suddenly, 353 doesn’t seem that great.
Scotland’s Health service is composed, in addition to the parent NHS Scotland body, of 14 Health Boards and 30 joint Health and Social Care Partnerships. That gives a total of 45 bodies.
Again, taking the same modest yardstick, of 80 open data sets for each, we would expect to see 3,600 data sets released.
What I found was 26 data sets on the new NHS Scotland open data portal. This is a great, high-quality resource, which I know from conversations with those behind it has great commitment to adding to its range of data provided.
However, given our yardstick above, we are still 3,574 data sets short on Scottish Health data.
Higher and Further education
Scotland’s HE / FE landscape comprises of 35 Universities and colleges.
Glasgow and Edinburgh Universities each have an open data publication mechanism for data arising out of a business operation, which contain interesting and useful data.
Despite that, there is no operational, statistical or other open data being created by any universities or colleges that I could identify. Again, using the same measure as above, that produces a deficit of (80 x 35) or 2,800 datasets.
Supply versus expectation
If we accept for the moment that the approximate number of data sets that we might expect in the Scottish public sector is as set out above, and that the current provision is, or is close to, what I have found in this trawl, then what is the over all picture?
FE / HE
Table 1: Supply versus expectation of Scottish public sector Open Data
As we can see from the table above, it appears that the Scottish public sector is currently publishing 1,110 of 24,090 expected open data sets. This is just 4.6%. So, by those calculations, more than 95% of data that we might reasonably expect to see published as Open Data is not being released.
Scotland is behind the UK generally
Whether you agree with the exact figures or not, and I am open to challenge and discussion, it is clear that we are failing to produce the data that is badly needed to stimulate innovation and deliver the economic and social benefits that we expected when set out to deliver open data for Scotland.
I’ve long argued that in terms of the UK’s performance in Open Data league tables, such as the Open Data Barometer, Scotland is a drag on the UK’s performance, with Scotland’s meagre output falling well short of the rest of the UK’s Open Data. In addition to existing approaches, we should see Scotland’s OD assessed separately, using the same methodology, in order to be able compare Scotland with the UK as a whole. That would allow us to measure Scotland’s performance on a like-for-like basis, identify shortfalls and target remedial action where needed.
I have argued previously that a significant issue which stops the Scottish public sector getting behind open data is the lack of public policy to make it happen, as well as an ignorance, or denial, of the potential economic and social benefits that it would bring. While I was part of the group who wrote the Scottish Government’s 2015 Open Data Strategy, it was, in its final form, toothless and not underpinned by policy.
Even when Open Data does make an appearance, on page 19, it is relation to broader topic rather than forming actions on its own merits. The position is similar in the plan’s detailed commitments. This is not to denigrate the work that has gone into these, and the early positive engagement between Scottish Government and civic groups, but this is a huge missed opportunity – and we should not have to wait until 2020 to rectify it.
At this point, it is worth contrasting this with the Welsh Government’s Open Government plan 2016-2018 which was reviewed recently (PDF). In that plan, Open Data was the entire focus of the first two sections, and covered pages 4 to 6 of the plan. This was no afterthought: it was a significant driver and a central plank of their open government plan.
The broader community
Scotland still lacks a developed Open Data community. This will come in time as data is made more widely available, is more usable and useful – and also through the engagement with the Open Government process – but we all need to work to develop that and accelerate the process. I set out suggestions for this in a previous post.
There are significant opportunities to grow the use of open data through the opening of private sector and community-generated and -curated data.
The universities and colleges in Scotland should be adopting open data in their curriculum, raising awareness among students, creating entrepreneurs who can establish businesses on the back of open data.
Schools should be using open data to get their classes involved: using it to explain their environment, climate, and transport system; to understand local demographics, the distribution of local government spending, or comparative attainment of schools.
Government should be developing the curriculum to use open data to foster a better understanding of data and how it underpins modern society.
There are some positive things going on: the roadshows that the Scottish Government are doing, as well as other Data Fest Fringe events; the regular data hack weekends we’ve been doing in Aberdeen under the Code The City banner; and the major long-term project to build and deploy community-hosted air quality monitoring sensors which provide open data for the local community. These need to become the norm – and to be happening across the country.
Organisations such as The Data Lab, Censis and other innovation centres have a great opportunity here to advance their work, whether in education, community building or fostering innovation, and to support this to achieve their organisational missions.
Bringing people together
Having earlier created a Twitter account for a nascent Scottish Open Data Action Group (@Soda_group), I have reconsidered that. Instead of an action group to pressure, shame or coerce the Scottish Government into action, what we need is a common group that has the Scottish Government onside – and everyone works together. So I have renamed it @opendata_sco. It already has 179 followers and I hope that we can grow that quickly, and use that to generate more interest and engagement.
As I have said previously this isn’t a them-and-us, supply-and-demand relationship. We’re all in it together, and the better we collaborate as a community the better, and quicker, society as a whole benefits from it.
Note: This blogpost first appeared on codethecity.co.uk in January 2019 and has been archived here with a redirect from the original URL.
I wrote some recent articles about the state of open data in Scotland. Those highlighted the poor current provision and set out some thoughts on how to improve the situation. This post is about a concrete example of the impact of government doing things poorly.
Ennui: a great spur to experimentation
As the Christmas ticked by I started to get restless. Rather than watch a third rerun of Elf, I decided I wanted to practice some new skills in mapping data: specifically how to make Choropleth Maps. Rather than slavishly follow some online tutorials and show unemployment per US state, I thought it would be more interesting to plot some data for Scotland’s 32 local authorities.
Where to get the council boundaries?
If you search Google for “boundary data Scottish Local Authorities” you will be taken to this page on the data.gov.uk website. It is titled “Scottish Local Authority Areas” and the description explains the background to local government boundaries in Scotland. The publisher of the data is the Scottish Government Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI). Had I started on their home page, which is far from user-friendly, and filtered and searched, I would have eventually been taken back to the page on the data.gov.uk data portal.
This takes you to a page headed, alarmingly, “Order OS Open Data.” After some lengthy text (which warns that DVDs will take about 28 days to arrive but that downloads will normally arrive within an hour), there then follows a list of fifteen data sets to choose. The Boundary Line option looked most appropriate after reading descriptions.
This was described as being in a proprietary ERSI shapefile format, and being 754Mb of files, with another version in the also proprietary Mapinfo format. Importantly, there was no option for downloading data for Scotland only, which I wanted. In order to download it, I had to give some minimal details, and complete a captcha. On completion, I got the message, “Your email containing download links may take up to 2 hours to arrive.”
There was a very welcome message at the foot of the page: “OS OpenData products are free under the Open Government Licence.” This linked not to the usual National Archives definition, but to a page on the OS site itself with some extra, but non-onerous reminders.
Once the link arrived (actually within a few minutes) I then clicked to download the data as a Zip file. Thankfully, I have a reasonably fast connection, and within a few minutes I received and unzipped twelve sets of 4 files each, which now took up 1.13GB on my hard drive.
Two sets of files looked relevant: scotland_and_wales_region.shp and scotland_and_wales_const_region.shp. I couldn’t work out what the differences were in these, and it wasn’t clear why Wales data is also bundled with Scotland – but these looked useful.
Wrong data in the wrong format
My first challenge was that I didn’t want Shapefiles, but these were the only thing on offer, it appeared. The tutorials I was going to follow and adapt used a library called Folium, which called for data as GeoJson, which is a neutral, lightweight and human readable file format.
I needed to find a way to check the contents of the Shapefiles: were they even the ones I wanted? If so, then perhaps I could convert them in some way.
To check the shapefile contents, I settled on a library called GeoPandas. One after the other I loaded scotland_and_wales_region.shp and scotland_and_wales_const_region.shp. After viewing the data in tabular form, I could see that these are not what I was looking for.
So, I searched again on the Scottish Spatial Infrastructure and found this page. It has a Download link at the top right. I must have missed that.
But when you click on Download it turns out to be a download of the metadata associated with the data, not the data files. Clicking Download link via OS Open Data, further down page, takes you back to the very same link, above.
I did further searching. It appeared that the Scottish Local Government Boundary Commission offered data for wards within councils but not the councils’ own boundaries themselves. For admin boundaries, there were links to OS’ Boundary Line site where I was confronted by same choices as earlier.
Eventually, through frustration I started to check the others of the twelve previously-downloaded Boundary Line data sets and found there was a shape file called “district_borough_unitary_region.shp” On inspection in GeoPandas it appeared that this was what I needed – despite Scottish Local Authorities being neither districts nor boroughs – except that it contained all local authority boundaries for the UK – some 380 (not just the 32 that I needed).
Converting the data
Having downloaded the data I then had to find a way to convert it from Shapefile to Geojson (adapting some code I had discovered on StackOverflow) then subset the data to throw away almost 350 of the 380 boundaries. This was a two stage process: use a conversion script to read in Shapefiles, process and spit out Geojson; write some code to read in the Geojson, covert it to a python dictionary, match elements against a list of Scottish LAs, then write the subset of boundaries back out as a geojson text file.
Using the Geojson to create a choropleth map
I’ll spare the details here, but I then spent many, many hours trying to get the Geojson which I had generated to work with the Folium library. Eventually it dawned on me that while the converted Geojson looked ok, in fact it was not correct. The conversion routine was not producing the correct Geojson.
Having returned to this about 10 days after my first attempts, and done more hunting around (surely someone else had tried to use Scottish LAs as geojson!) I discovered that Martin Crowley had republished on Github boundaries for UK Administrations as Geojson. This was something that had intended to do for myself later, once I had working conversions, since the OGL licence permits republishing with accreditation.
Had I had access to these two weeks ago, I could have used them. With the Scottish data downloaded as Geojson, producing a simple choropleth map as a test took less than ten minutes!
While there is some tidying to do on the scale of the key, and the shading, the general principle works very well. I will share the code for this in a future post.
There is something decidedly user-unfriendly about the SDI approach which is reflective of the Scottish public sector at large when it comes to open data. This raises some specific, and some general questions.
Why can’t the Scottish Government’s SDI team publish data themselves, as the OGL facilitates, rather than have a reliance on OS publishing?
Why are boundary data, and by the looks of it other geographic data, published as ESRI GIS shapefiles or Mapinfo formats rather than the generally more-useable, and much-smaller, GeoJson format?
Why can’t we have Scottish (and English, and Welsh) authority boundaries as individual downloads, rather than bundled as UK-level data, forcing the developer to download unnecessary files? I ended up with 1.13GB (and 48 files) of data instead of a single 8.1MB Scottish geojson file.
What engagement with the wider data science / open community have SDI team done to establish how their data could be useful, useable and used?
How do we, as the broader Open Data community share or signpost resources? Is it all down to government? Should we actively and routinely push things to Google Dataset Search? Had there been a place for me to look, then I would have found the GitHub repo of council boundaries in minutes, and been done in time to see the second half of Elf!
I am always up for a conversation about how we make open data work as it should in Scotland. If you want to make the right things happen, and need advice, or guidance, for your organisation, business or community, then we can help you. Please get in touch. You can find me here or here or fill in this contact form and we will respond promptly.
Note: This blog post originally appeared on codethecity.co.uk in November 2018 and has been archived here with a redirect from the original URL.
The Scottish Government published its draft action plan on 14th November 2018. You can find it here. They are seeking feedback before the 27th November 2018.
Here is my feedback which I sent on 25th November.
Thank you for the chance to feed back on the drafts of the Scottish Open Government Action Plan and Commitments.
These documents are welcome and while they certainly set a path for moving Scotland further in the right direction in terms of openness and transparency, we should remember that those should not be our only aims. We need to ensure that we also address the need to use data and information to fuel innovation, and deliver societal and economic benefits for Scotland.
I have set out below my observations and suggestions in a number of areas which range from the general to the specific.
To deliver that public good requires freeing up information and data as a matter of course, rather than by exception.
There is one simple thing that could be done with immediate impact, and minimal effort, to free up large amounts of data and information for public re-use: adopt an Open Government Licence (OGL) for all published website information and data on the Scottish Government’s website(s), and other public sector sites, the only exception being where this cannot legally be done, as would be the case when personal data is involved.
The ICO’s own website (http://www.itspublicknowledge.info/home/TermsAndConditions.aspx) takes this approach: “Where the Commissioner is the copyright holder, information is available through the Open Government Licence. This means you have a worldwide, royalty-free, perpetual, non-exclusive licence to use the information, subject to important conditions set out in the licence.”
At present, websites operated by Scottish Government, local authorities, health boards etc. all appear to have blanket copyright statements. I certainly could find no exception to that. With OGL-licensed content, where data is not yet available as Open Data (OD), a page published as HTML could be legitimately scraped and transformed to open data by third parties as the licence would permit that. Currently pages such as this list of planning applications, https://publicaccess.aberdeencity.gov.uk/online-applications/simpleSearchResults.do?action=firstPage contain valuable data but are caught by default, site-wide copyright statements.
Of course, in reality citizens, companies, universities and organisations do scrape website content, but it is done under the radar. This approach results in repeated scraping as the results are not published as open data, and there is consequently limited public benefit. Switching the licensing model to OGL by default, and copyright by exception, would solve this and encourage both innovation and engagement: moving a supplier / consumer relationship to one where data and information are a shared public good.
The Scottish Government should mandate this approach not just for the whole of the public sector but also for companies performing contracts on behalf of Government, or who are in receipt of public funding or subsidy.
Targets for publishing
The Scottish Government’s own Open Data Strategy 2015 commits it to publishing data openly but despite my efforts and those of other contributors to it, the strategy mostly lacks hard targets, and sets overly-modest goals: “The ambitionis for all data by 2017 to be published in a format of 3* or above.” One could ask if all of Scottish Government’s data wasactually published to 3* standard by the end of 2017. If not, how much? Who knows – is this even measured, reported on or published?
Therefore, any new action plan should have harder, more specific targets. It is arguable that the lack of these, and of a clear Open Data Policyfor Government, as I called for in 2015, allows overly-pressed civil servants to have much less focus on publishing open data than is needed, resulting in inadequate resources being applied to that. So, ideally this action plan should be underpinned by policy for the whole of the Scottish public sector to ensure that effort and resource can be targeted on publication.
To support this, the public benefits of open data publishing, both in social and economic terms, should be made clear to all data publishers.
Every FOI request should be assessed on receipt, identifying whether it is for data or whether data publishing would satisfy that and future similar requests. If so, the data set should be set for publication as OD with regular periodic updates.
I looked for, but could not see, in the action plan and other document, an acknowledgement of the current statutory obligations on the Scottish Government in this area. Recognising, noting and commenting on these in the document would be a useful reminder of specific existing obligations but would also strengthen broader arguments for OD. The following list is not exhaustive.
Another example is the OECD’s “Compendium of good practices on the publication and reuse of open data for Anti-corruption across G20 countries: Towards data-driven public sector integrity and civic auditing”.
There are many resources available online which demonstrate best practices which Scotland’s public sector should adopt in order to deliver the aims of the action plan. Again, these should be mandated for adoption in the action plan. Some examples follow.
A key part of publishing information and data openly is discoverability. To do this well means understanding and applying best practices. Having standard identifiers, descriptors, taxonomies etc. will aid discoverability. So, all information and data publishing should use best practice, using the correct metadata and appropriate standards such as DCAT / DCAT-AP / DCAT.json.
There are some useful resources to assist in this such as
The Scottish Government has an internal expert on this, who sits on the international standards board. It is imperative that his input is sought, and implemented rigorously, in terms of this application of standards.
By using standard identifiers for things, such as UPRNs for properties, USRNs for roads and so on, data from multiple government sources can be aggregated about that object, and we can link items with certainty. If the identifiers are then made public, external data such as those from the private sector, can be amalgamated. There must be a concerted effort to make these identifiers public and re-usable. Instead of what appears to be a starting position of “we can’t do this because of x ” we must shift to “how can we do this and how can we sweep away barriers?” Where no identifiers exist for a specific domain, but it is identified that there would be benefit from having them, these should be created.
General approach to open data
Open Data is not a separate thing or process. The curation, management and publication of data is a continuum starting with the internal processes of the organisation. OD should be seen as the natural end point for all data where it is appropriate to publish openly. By adopting an open data by default approach, as outlined here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_by_default effort is expended on publishing, not on finding a reason or way to publish: data will be published as OD unless there are specific legal reasons why it can’t be. There are additional benefits to this, including improvements in data quality, de-duplication and re-use of data internally by other departments or services.
Further, while the draft action plan focuses on statistical data, it needs to be recognised that while publishing statistical data openly, the scope needs to be so much wider: encompassing all branches of the Scottish Government, its directorates, its NDPBs, and other agencies. SG also needs to act as a leader to health boards, local authorities, and to joint health and social care partnerships, and work with others such as Scottish Cities alliance where work is ongoing.
We need to open up reference data, geographical boundaries, transactional data, financial data, in fact anything that need not be closed by default.
Both the recently-formed geospatial commission and the rapidly changing stance of Ordnance Survey is going to impact on what we can publish – with barriers being removed. This increased liberalism will mean that data which we could not publish 3 months ago will suddenly be publishable. Scottish Government need to be on top of that and acting on it to push out data as soon as it can. Beyond that, they should be routinely pushing OS on issues such as derived data to ensure that barriers to publishing are actively removed. Similarly, if reference data is opened up at a UK level, then the Scottish portion of that data needs to be highlighted by the Scottish Government.
The action plan must include commitments to work with the Open Data community in Scotland. It is smaller than it should be since there has been relatively little data of value to work with up to now. Contrast with the position of Transport For London, one single organisation, whose open data as far back 2013 was reported to be responsible for 5,000 developer jobs and 500 apps. The Scots Govt needs to grow the OD community and develop it by being an active part of it; to actively seek input on what data sets would be most useful, to use the community as a sounding board; to gain the trust and support of the community by empowering them to be infomediaries who will build and develop products and services which enable citizens to use the data produced, and make sense of it.
Finally, the publication of open data needs to be seen as an educational resource too. Data should be available for use by schools, colleges and universities. Curricular development should encompass the use of open data. Outreach should work with teachers and lecturers so that children can understand their locality by using data pertinent to them. Honours-year and post-grad students in computing sciences should use open data in their projects. Innovation and entrepreneurship courses should encourage the use of public data. Journalism courses should teach data journalism, and so on.
Note: This blog post was originally published in November 2018 at CodeTheCity.co.uk and was archived here with redirects from the original URL.
Over the first weekend of November 2018, just over 100 people congregated in Aberdeen to attend the UK Open Data Camp. We’d pushed hard to bring it to Scotland, and specifically Aberdeen, for the first time. The event, the sixth of its type, which follows an unconference model where the attendees set the agenda, has previously taken place in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
I’m not going to go through what we did over the weekend, you can find plenty of that here and here. There are links to all 44 sessions which took places on this Google doc, and many of those have collaborative notes taken during the sessions.
Instead this is a reflective piece, seeking to understand what OD Camp can show us about the state of Open Data in Scotland and beyond.
Who was there?
Of the 100+ attendees, including camp-makers, we estimate that about 40 were from the public sector. Getting exact numbers is hard – people register in their own name, with their own email addresses, but we think that is a good guess.
While this sounds good, during the pitching session on the first day Rory Gianni asked a question: “Hands up who is here from the Scottish public sector?” Two people’s hands went up out of 100+. Each were from local authorities, Aberdeen and Perth city councils, and a third (also from Aberdeen) joined later on Saturday.
This is really concerning and shows the gulf between what Scotland could, or rather must, be doing and what is actually happening.
Sadly, we are very far from that. Few are of any scale or quality. I’ve written about this extensively in the past including in this blog post and its successor post.
So, if we use attendance by the Scottish public sector, at a free-to-attend event which was arranged for them on their very doorstep, as a barometer of commitment to open data, it is clear that something is rotten in the state of Denmark Scotland.
Three weeks on
Since the event, I’ve reached out to the Scottish Government through two channels. I contacted the Roger Halliday, the Chief Statistician, the senior civil servant with a responsibility for Open data, and responded to a Twitter contact from Kate Forbes, the minister for Public Finance and Digital Economy.
I then had an hour-long conversation with Roger and two of his colleagues. This was a very positive discussion. I took away that there is a genuine commitment to doing things better, underpinned by a realism about capacity and capability to widely deliver publication and engagement with the wider OD community. I have agreed to be part of a round table meeting on OD to be held in the new year – and have expressed a commitment to assist in any way needed to improve things.
Ironically, in the midst of this three week period, the Scottish Government published its Open Government action plan. This emerged on 14th November and is open for feedback until 27th November. So, if you are quick, you can respond to that – and I encourage you to do so. While this certainly seeks to move things in the right direction in terms of openness and transparency, it is extremely light on open data and committed actions to address some of the issues which I have raised.
My next blog post will be a copy of the feedback which I provide, and on which I am currently working.
When I started drafting this post I was in a very negative frame of mind as regards the Scottish Open Data scene – and particularly in terms of the public sector. In the intervening period, I launched the Scottish Open Data Action group on Twitter. The thinking behind this was to get together a group of activists to swell the public voice beyond mine and that of ODI Aberdeen.
Given the way things are moving on with the Scottish Government and the positive engagement that has begun, the group, which is in its infancy, may not be needed as a vocal pressure group. Instead we could be a supportive external panel who provide expertise and encouragement as needed. Who knows – let’s see!
Note: This post was first published in in June 2018 on the CodeTheCity.co.uk blog and has been archived here with redirects from the URL.
There is an oft-repeated joke in which a tourist, completely lost in the Irish countryside, asks an old fellow who is leaning on a gate at the edge of a field, “Can you tell me how to get to Dublin?” After a long pause, the old guy replies, “Well, you don’t want to start from here”.
Previously, I covered open data in Scotland from 2010 to the present. Now I look ahead, but to get there we need to start from where we currently find ourselves.
Scottish open data publishing – now
Earlier this week I spent a couple of hours pulling this list together as a first snapshot of the current open data publishing landscape. The intention is to present an accurate precis of the current state, within the available time to do the research. If I have missed anything, or got it wrong, let me know and I will fix it.
There have been sporadic attempts – of varying size, cost, and success – to make Scottish open data available. How these were initiated or funded varies. Examples include bodies such as Nesta, individual local authorities, groups such as the Scottish Cities Alliance (SCA), and by the Scottish Government.
It appears that at the time of writing that the SCA programme (which is scheduled to run from Jan 2017 to Dec 2018) has so far delivered new open data portals for Dundee, Perth, Inverness and Stirling. Some of these have started to publish a few data sets and others, 18 months into the programme, are still waiting to do so. Aberdeen, who dropped out in late 2017, announced in May of this year that they were back on board, but so far there is no sign of anything being delivered. Even the open data landing pages which Aberdeen City Council once hosted have been removed, although I have heard mention of some GIS open data due to be released.
Edinburgh and Glasgow had existing portals prior to the SCA programme. In Edinburgh’s case, while it has an impressive 234 datasets, only four of these have been updated in the last six months, and no new data sets added for over 15 months.
It looks like Glasgow’s open data platform is a new one, replacing the one created as part of the TSB funded £20m+ future cities programme (PDF. Links to original site have disappeared). It used to host over 370 data sets. The new one has far fewer: 72 . While a number of these have been added to the new portal this year, many of them are historic: e.g. house sales data only go to 2013, which suggests that these are ported from the old site and not updated. It also suggests that around 300 data sets have vanished (temporarily, we hope)!
Some considerable recent attention, and an award, has been given to a project carried out on business rates data by North Lanarkshire Council (NLC) with partners Snook and Urban Tide. This is part of a programme funded by the ODI, and the press coverage reiterates NLC’s claim to have an open by default policy. I know both Urban Tide and Snook, and their work – so I am sure that it will be great. In researching this, though, I could find no data.
In response to my enquiries NLC told me that they are testing a platform. Interestingly, Edinburgh has claimed in the past to have an open-by-default policy for data too, which I cannot locate. Sadly this position is not supported by their own portal’s current condition.
Similarly, Renfrewshire have an Open Data in Renfrewshire page, “The Council is taking a lead role in complying with the Scottish Government’s Open Data Strategy“, the Dublin Code data of which show it was created, and last updated in April 2016. They have a 25-page strategy dated 2015 with a commitment to open data by default, but NO open data that I can find; not even an entry in their website A-Z.
When we created the business case for the SCA data programme, I was quite clear that each of the 7 local authorities were procuring a portal for their city, not for the council. This is an important point. When local councils fail to provide a platform, and data, it is not just the local authority’s image it is tarnished – they are failing citizens, academia and businesses alike.
Where can we see best practice in action?
Sadly, the answer isn’t in Scottish local government, at least for now. Perhaps, when the SCA project reaches its conclusion in December, there will more to show for it. Let us hope.
It also has its Scottish Spatial Data Infrastructure hub which presents geospatial data for both local authority and Scottish Government. This is a welcome resource but is not without its challenges. I’ve not found a way to search by licence (as it appears that not all data is licensed for reuse) and some of the data formats (e.g. WMS or WFS) are more suited to other specialists rather than the general public.
If you know of other high quality examples which I have missed, please let me know.
What stops publishers doing better?
I have had many conversations about this over the years. Since I wrote part one of this mini-series several people contacted me with their thoughts about the Scottish Public Sector’s approach to OD.
Issues which get in the way of doing it right (in no particular order) include:
Lack of awareness (or deliberate ignoring) of legal commitments to provide the data
No open data policy, so it is easy to not do it.
No organisational commitment
A lack of understanding by, and therefore no support from, senior managers / elected members
Short term-ism. Too frequently, OD is delivered as a project, not a long-term commitment
No clear responsibility for OD, or the wrong people / roles with responsibility
Lack of awareness of benefits (to organisation, to economy, to society)
Lack of capacity or lack of skills
Lack of engagement with wider data community
Imagined barriers, or no drive to overcome them
Poor data management, and / or siloed structures within the organisation
Data hoarding by services (“data is power and I am not giving mine up”)
Legal restrictions on publishing (real or imagined)
I can’t deal with all of these in this post – and many are cultural, and need to be resolved by the organisations themselves, but I will address a few of these below. It should also be noted that the G8 Charter on Open Data from 2013, and the Scottish Government’s 2015 Open Data Strategy (PDF), mean that not publishing is simply not an option.
But, licensing …
While not all open data is geospatial, a significant proportion is, and particularly useful one at that. A common barrier which is raised when electing not to release geospatial data is the licensing restrictions imposed by Ordnance Survey. Sometimes these are genuine issues but on occasion these difficulties are either thrown up by over-cautious individuals or those who can’t be bothered to research and tackle them.
I do recognise that the issue is a complex one but it is worth comparing the likes of the Surrey Planning Hub which offers a developer-friendly API returning fully-geocoded planning application data for all local authorities in an entire county, with – for example – the Scottish Spatial Hub which hosts 27 amalgamated spatial datasets for the 32 councils. Only three of these are open data. If you try to download the Planning Application data (c.f. Surrey) you are asked for a authentication key. If you try to register for one you are informed that you can only do so if you work for a local authority.
If anyone can explain why Surrey and Hampshire Hub, and other English authorities such as Camden can offer downloads of planning open data, of this quality and Scotland can’t, I would love to hear that. At its heart I believe there a misunderstanding about the OS Licence for Derived Data and presumption to publish.
This recent blog post by Ben Proctor, based on work at OD Camp Belfast, gives as good a set of guidance, and some debunking of myths. His summary hits the nail on the head: “The vast majority of derived data based on OS information can just be published by public bodies under this ‘presumption to publish’.”
The vast majority of derived data based on OS information can just be published by public bodies under this ‘presumption to publish’.
An announcement last week by Ordnance Survey points in the direction of further openness and a more permissive licensing regime (see this post by Owen Boswarva) and this is ahead of the formation and work of the new Geospatial Commission (GC).
So, perceived licence issues will soon be no longer being a barrier behind which the mis-informed can shelter. If I were working in local government data, or in a Scottish Government directorate, I would be proactively planning now how I am going to start to publish it.
Of course, the issues are not just with with publication.
The aim of the Aberdeen meet-up is to create that city-region local data community: bringing together interested, engaged participants from academia, citizens, community groups, developers, councils, Scots Govt departments, private companies and others. Open data is a large part of that conversation as well as data science and other related topics.
Activity such as that should be happening in each of the seven cities, and across Scotland more generally. While it doesn’t have to be driven by the local council – ours wasn’t – it should open up a meaningful dialogue with authorities: demonstrating need, prioritising specific data, providing feedback, creating opportunities for data use, identifying data in others’ hands, providing advocacy etc.
When we created the Scottish Cities Alliances Open Data programme, one of the four planned work streams, which was well-funded, was the nurturing of local data communities. Our aim was to move from the position of council as provider, and citizen / developer as consumer, of data, to one of all interested parties working together. As I said in that piece, “Going beyond publication, the true value of open data will be realised in its re-use and in the innovative uses to which it is put. The SCA partners will work to develop city-region open data eco-systems where the public, third and private sectors collaborate to encourage data use, economic stimulation and creative approaches to solving civic challenges.”
Going beyond publication, the true value of open data will be realised in its re-use and in the innovative uses to which it is put. The SCA partners will work to develop city-region open data eco-systems where the public, third and private sectors collaborate to encourage data use, economic stimulation and creative approaches to solving civic challenges.
As an adjunct to the SCA programme I put forward a proposal in 2017 for funding of a Code For Scotland programme, based on our experience as part of Code For Europe 2014 (PDF). There was a general support for it, but it was put on hold at the time. Part of the idea behind that was to provide seed support for creating a grass-roots movement to work with data in each Scottish city. In the absence of that, or to complement it should it come about, we do need to create informal networks of open data groups across the country.
So, what’s missing?
I subscribe to the notion that data in public hands is a common asset – and should be treated as such: a concept sometimes referred to as a data commons. Getting to that position entails quite a change in thinking and action. A first step is to create open data, publishing that in a way that easily allows, or encourages, re-use, with clear permissive licensing.
Drawing from the points above, to achieve the potential offered by open data (and already realised in more progressive places) Scotland needs the following:
The Scottish Government, and its many branches, Local Government, Health Boards, and others must now demonstrate a commitment to publish open data. This should follow the Enschede model and implement an open-by-default data policy. This means having the policy formally adopted, published, and committed to by all managers and employees.
We need to stop seeing open data as a separate activity to an organisation’s other data governance. It is not. Open data can be regarded to some degree as a barometer of how well an organisation manages its data assets.
Government need to move beyond ‘build-it-and-they-will-come’ attitude to data publishing, and to work with all partners to make it usable, useful and used.
While publishing static open data at three-star level on the five star model is useful starting point, it is not in itself an end. We need
common standards such as DCAT to enable interoperability between data catalogues.
Collaboration is key – and organisations should band together to share some of the heavy lifting. This increases outcomes, improves standards and reduces local cost. We should bin the ‘not invented here mentality’ and look further afield for where work of high quality is taking place. We should share these best practices like this.
While we are on this topic, individual councils should abandon the “we’re special” mentality which surfaces far too often. All unitary authorities essentially provide the same bunch of services, and have the same core systems from few suppliers. Each would benefit from increased co-operation, collaboration and common approaches to data management and publication.
Academia needs to get behind the open data movement. Data Lab and its many partner universities should be actively involved in the Scottish open data eco-system. MSc programmes (and undergraduate courses) should
regularly use open data, and
teach how to make use of it,
show how to build new and innovative services,
encourage students to be advocates for open data, how to request it, and to act as an intermediary between the publisher and the citizen.
We should then extend that to school pupils – linking it to the curriculum, demonstrating how to use data, interpret and understand it, build with it.
Each local city region, at a minimum, should have an active open data group – and links between these should be encouraged. Funding for this core part of the eco-system should be seen by Scottish and Local government as an investment in the economic and social future of Scotland.
The whole is greater than the sum of the parts: recruiting and involving additional local partners, such as local businesses, to make their data open will significantly enhance what the data community can build or create.
We need more meet-ups, events, competitions, challenges, and opportunities for data scientists, coders, analysts to work with government data.
And what will you do?
As the old adage says, “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” So my challenge to you is, whatever your role, what are you doing to bring this about?
For local government in particular, please stop boasting about what you are going to do. Do that thing whatever it is, make it live, publish the data, deliver that policy, live up to promises – then you can boast about it.
If you have a responsibility for data and you aren’t actively pushing for its release as open data then you are probably in the wrong job.
If you are a politician, or elected official, and you are not questioning why your organisation is not publishing open data and supporting its use then you should stop down, and let someone who understands this stand for your seat.
If you work in Economic Development, Community Development, Health, Social Care, Transport, Environmental Services or anything else and you aren’t supporting a movement which can positively impact on your area of specialism then your need rethink your commitment to that role.
If you find yourself justifying why you haven’t published, couldn’t get support, would have liked to but , didn’t get a budget, weren’t supported, ‘legal’ said no, the dog ate your data…. please stop. I have heard excuses from all quarters for the last eight years. No more, please.
If you are an academic and your course neither makes use of, nor champions, open data, then revise your course materials (they could probably do with a refresh anyway).
If you are a developer, citizen, journalist, analyst – whatever – and you are not part of a local data meet-up, join one. If there isn’t one, start one.
If your local authority isn’t publishing open data, ask them why: lobby councillors, use FOI, get in the press.
Stop waiting for others to make stuff happen!
My intention is to write a follow up to this section, with a more detailed list of suggestions, links to handy guides, useful publications etc.
I am always up for a conversation about this. If you want to make the right things happen, and need advice, or guidance, for your organisation, business or community, then we can help you. Please get in touch. You can find me here or here or fill in this contact form and we will respond promptly.
Note: this blog post was first published on 10th June 2018 at CodeTheCity.co.uk has has been archived here with redirects from the original URL.
In this, the first of two posts, I look back over eight years of open data in Scotland, showing where ambition and intent mostly didn’t deliver as we hoped.
In the next part I will look forward, examining how we should rectify things, engage the right people, build on current foundations, and how we all can be involved in making it work as we hoped it would all those years ago.
Let our story begin
“The moon was low down, and there was just the glimmer of the false dawn that comes about an hour before the real one.” – Rudyard Kipling, Plain Tales from the Hills, 1888
The story to-date of Open Data in Scotland is one of multiple false dawns. Are we at last about to witness a real sunrise after so much misplaced hope?
At Data Lab‘s recent Innovation Week in Glasgow, I found myself among 115 other data science MSc students – some of the brightest and best in Scotland – working on seven different industry challenges. You can read more of how that went on my own blog. In this post I want to mention briefly one of the challenges, and the subsequent conversations which it stirred in the room, then on social media and even in email correspondence, then use that to illustrate my false dawn analogy.
The Innovation Week challenge was a simple one compared to some others, and was composed of two questions: “how might we analyse planning applications in light of biodiversity?”, and, “how might we evaluate the cumulative impact of planning applications across the 32 Scottish Local Authorities?”
These are, on the face of it, fairly easily answered. To make it even simpler, as part of the preparation for the innovation week, Data Lab, Snook and others had done some of the leg work for us. This included identifying the NBN Atlas system as one which contained over 219 million sightings of wildlife species, which could be queried easily and which provided open access to its data.
That should have been the difficult part. The other part, getting current and planning application data from the Scottish Local Authorities should have been the easier task – but it was far from it. In fact, in the context of the time available to us, it was impossible as we could find not a single council, of the 32, offering its planning data as open data. You can read more of the particulars of that on my earlier blog posts, above.
This is about the general – not the specific, so, for now, let us set some context to this, and perhaps see how we got to be this point.
The first false dawn.
We start in August 2010, when I was working in Aberdeen City Council. I’d been reading quite a bit about open data, and following what a few enlightened individuals, such as Chris Taggart were doing. It seemed to me so obvious that open data could deliver so much socially and economically – even if no formal studies had by then been published. So, since it was a no-brainer, I arranged for us to publish the first open data in Scotland – at least from a Scottish City Council.
The UK Coalition Government had, in 2010, put Open Data front and centre. They created http://data.gov.uk and mandated a transparency agenda for England and Wales which necessitated publishing Open Data for all LA transactions over £500.
At some point thereafter, in 2011-12 both Edinburgh and Glasgow councils started to produce some open data. Sally Kerr in Edinburgh became their champion – and began working with Ewan Klein in Edinburgh University to get things moving there. I can’t track the exact dates. If you can help me, please let me know and I will update this post.
In 2012 the Open Data Institute was founded by Nigel Shadbolt and Tim Berners-Lee, and from day one championed open data as a public good, stressing the need for effective governance models to protect it.
During 2012 and 2013 Aberdeen, Edinburgh and others started work with Nesta Scotland, run out of Dundee, by the inspirational Jackie McKenzie and her amazing team. They funded two collaborative programmes: Make It Local Scotland and Open Data Scotland.
The former had Aberdeen City Council using Linked Open Data (another leap forward) to create a citizen-driven alerts system for road travel disruption. This was built by Bill Roberts and his team at Swirrl – who have gone on to do more excellent work in this area.
Around mid 2013 Glasgow had received Technology Strategy Board funding for a future cities demonstrator was was recruiting people to work on its open data programme
The second Nesta programme, Open Data Scotland , saw two cities – Aberdeen and Edinburgh – work with two rural councils, East Lothian and Clackmannanshire. Crucially, it linked us all with the Code For Europe movement, and we were able to see at first-hand the amazing work being done in Amsterdam, Helsinki, Barcelona, Berlin and elsewhere. It felt that we were part of something bigger, and unstoppable.
And it gets real-er
In late 2014 the Scottish Government appeared to suddenly ‘get’ open data. They wanted a strategy – so they pulled a bunch of us together two write one. The group included Sally from Edinburgh and me – and the document was published in March 2015. I had pushed for it to have more teeth than it ended up having, and to commit to defined actions, putting an onus on departments and local government to deliver widely on this in a tight timescale.
It did include –
“To realise our vision and to meet the growing interest from users we encourage all organisations to have an Open Data publication plan in place and published on their website by December 2015. Organisations currently publishing data in a format which does not readily support re-use, should within their plan identify when the data will be made available in a more re-usable format. The ambition is for all data by 2017 to be published in a format of 3* or above.” I will come back to this later.
This MUST be it!
In 2016-2017 the Scottish Cities Alliance, supported by the European Regional Development Fund launched a programme: Scotland’s Eighth City – The Smart City. At its heart was data – and more specifically open data. The data project was to feature all seven of Scotland’s cities, working on four streams of work:
data engagement and
The perception was also at that time that the Scottish Government had taken its eye off the ball as regards open data. Little if anything had changed as a result of the 2015 strategy. By working together as 7 cities we could lead the way – and get the other 25 councils, and the Scottish Government themselves, not only to take notice, but also to work with us to put Open Data at the heart of Scottish public services.
The programme would run from Jan 2017 to Dec 2018. I was asked to lead it, which I was delighted to do – and remained involved in that way until I retired from Aberdeen City Council in June 2017.
At that point Aberdeen abandoned all commitment to open data and withdrew from the SCA programme. I have no first-hand knowledge of the SCA programme as it stands now.
Six False Dawns Later
So, after six false dawns what is the state of open data in Scotland: is it where we expected it to be? The short answer to that has be a resounding no.
Some of the developments which should have acted as beacons have been abandoned. The few open data portals we have are, with some newer exceptions, looking pretty neglected: data is incomplete or out of date. There is no national co-ordination of effort, no clear sets of guidance, no agreement on standards or terminologies, no technical co-ordination.
Activity, where it happens at all, is localised, and is more often than not grass-roots driven (which is not in itself a bad thing). In some cases local authorities are being shamed into reinstating their programmes by community groups.
The Scottish Government, with the exception of their SIMD Linked Data work, which was again built by Swirrl, and some statistical data, have produced shamefully little Open Data since their 2015 Strategy.
Despite a number of key players in the examples above still being around, in one role of another, and a growing body of evidence demonstrating ROI, there is strong evidence that Senior Managers, Elected Members and others don’t understand the socio-economic benefits that publishing open data can bring. This is particularly disturbing considering the shrinking budgets and the need to be more efficient and effective.
So, what now?
Given that we have witnessed these many false dawns, when will the real sunrise be? What will trigger that, and what can we each do to make it happen?