Scotland’s Open Data, February 2019. An update.

Note: this blog post first appeared on codethecity.co.uk in February 2019 and has been archived here with a redirect from the original URL.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.

Latest review

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.

Local Authorities

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.

Scottish Government

So far, I have found the following open data being produced:

  • 248 datasets on the excellent, and expanding, Statistics.Gov.Scot portal  covering a number of departments, agencies and NDPBs,
  • 54 datasets on the Scottish Natural Heritage portal, 53 of which are explicitly covered by OGL and one marked “free to use data.”
  • At least 43 OGL-licensed mapping layers on the Marine Scotland portal
  • 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.

Health

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?

Sector Published Expected Defecit
Local Government 731 8000 7,269
Scottish Government 353 10,800 10,447
Health 26 3,600 3,574
FE / HE 0 2,800 2,800
Totals 1,110 25,200 24,090

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.

Policy underpinning

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.

We now have an Open Government Action Plan for Scotland 2018-2020 (PDF). This is  great step forward but unfortunately it is almost entirely silent on Open Data, as pointed out in my response to the draft in November 2018.

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.

I have also launched a new open Slack channel for Open Data Scotland, so that a community can better communicate with one another.

Please join, using this form.

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.

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Header photo by Andrew Amistad on Unsplash

Boundaries, not barriers

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.

The latter page offers a link to “Download via OS OpenData” which sounds encouraging.

Download via OS Open Data
Download via OS Open Data

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.

Partial directory listing of downloaded files
Partial directory listing of downloaded files

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.

SSI Download Link
SSI Download Link

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.

Code to convert shapefiles to geojson
Code to convert shapefiles to geojson

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.

Another source

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!

Choropleth map of Scottish Local Authorities
Choropleth map of Scottish Local Authorities

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.

Some questions

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.

  1. Why can’t the Scottish Government’s SDI team publish data themselves, as the OGL facilitates, rather than have a reliance on OS publishing?
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. What engagement with the wider data science / open community have SDI team done to establish how their data could be useful, useable and used?
  5. 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!

And finally

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.

The Many False Dawns of Scottish Open Data (2010 to 2018)

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?

The trigger

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 Challenge

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.

Another glimmer

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.

Studies, and even mainstream press, were starting to highlight the benefits of open data. Now this was starting to feel like a movement!

Suffering from premature congratulation

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

Sh*t gets real

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 standards
  • data platforms
  • data engagement and
  • Data analytics.

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?

For that you will have to read our next instalment!

[Header image by Marc Marchal on Unsplash]