I really like going to events about open data and particularly those about the not for profit sector and how we can engage with and use open data. So I was delighted to go along to Nesta’s Maximising Your Data Impact event this week. It’s a chance catch up with some familiar faces and meet people I’ve engaged with on social networks and talk about open data, its potential and the how we take advantage of the opportunities it presents. This time it was also an opportunity for me to talk to people about our plans for Data Unity, to develop a useful tool for charities and community groups to make better use of their own data and use other public data to help them realise their organisational aims. But, pleasant though it is to chat to friends and like-minded colleagues, I came away frustrated and depressed by the day.
While the speakers on the platform repeatedly referred to widening participation and engagement with open data, the fact is that it’s the same few people they’re talking to about it. The discussions are still highly technical – which though obviously important, is not likely to engage a wider audience in the issues and opportunities open data presents. For an interested amateur like me, much as I tried to understand the finer points of standardisation and the like, I found much of the content going over my head. I occupied myself with the interesting backchat on twitter, but it felt like something of a missed opportunity.
For an event about civil society’s use of open data (the event’s hashtag was ‘#vcsdata’!) there were depressingly few participants and presenters from the not for profit sector. The morning plenaries had the Minister for Civil Society and Peter Wanless from the Big Lottery Fund, along with a plethora of data specialists; undoubtedly experts, but nothing I felt that moved practice forward within the VCS. The good folk of Barnsley Hospice have a good story to tell about how they use open data which is an important exemplar from the sector, but (with respect) I heard them present at the Opening Doors event (a one day conference also on the VCS and open data) a year ago. Things have not moved on.
There was some practical input in the afternoon – several practitioners squeezed into a 45 minute slot across a whole day…and it did feel rushed. The one part of the day which offered some important learning, inspiration and was led by the sector felt like it was very much second fiddle to the data specialists who dominated the earlier plenaries.
One techie speaker said ‘we have the tools, we have the data, now we need to do things with it’, but from where I’m sitting, we don’t have the tools, we don’t have the data and we need to have a discussion about how open data can help us to achieve our goals. Talk of widening participation is no more than a platitude if the debate continues to be held among a small number of people with little dedicated effort to reframe the debate in non-technical terms. Where we are today, in the VCS, is a million miles from where we may want to get to. We need to shift attitudes, understanding, data literacy and practice incrementally.
I hope that Data Unity will help to encourage and support charities and community groups to take the first steps towards open data’s promised land, but it is never going to be more than one part of what’s needed. We need much more cross-pollination between techies and non-techies, those who can develop and those who can do. Until we start to mix things up and engage with non-data specialists on their own terms, the conversation will continue to be held among the same small group of people and any potential open data does offer will not be realised within the VCS.
It’s time to open up open data.