12 February 2010

It's all about YOU: Manchester as an Open Data city

There are plans afoot to declare Manchester as an Open Data city. At the Manchester Social Media Cafe last week I attended a presentation by Julian Tait, a founder of the Social Media Cafe, who talked to us about why this would be a good thing.

The Open Data initiative emerged as a result of Future Everything 2009, a celebration of the digital future in art, music and ideas. But what is an Open Data city? It is based upon the principle that data is the life blood of a city; it allows cities to operate, function, develop and respond, to be dymanic and to evolve. Huge datasets are generally held in places that are inaccessible to many of the populace; they are largely hidden. If data is opened up then applications of the data can be hugely expanded and the possibilities would be limitless.

There are currently moves by central government to open up datasets, to enable us to develop a greater awareness and understanding of society and of our environment. We now have data.gov.uk and we can go there and download data (currently around 2000 datasets) and use the data as we want to. But for data to have meaning to people within a city there has to be something at a city level; at a scale that feels more relevant to people in an everyday context.

Open data may be (should be?) seen as a part of the democratic process. It brings transparency, and helps to hold government to account. There are examples of the move towards transparency - sites such as They Work For You , which allows us all to keep tabs on our MP, and MySociety. In the US, Columbia has an initiative known as Apps for Democracy, providing prizes for innovative apps as a way to engage the community in 'digital democracy'.

They key here is that if data is thrown open it may be used for very surprising, unpredictable and valuable things: "The first edition of Apps for Democracy yielded 47 web, iPhone and Facebook apps in 30 days - a $2,300,000 value to the city at a cost of $50,000".

Mapumental is a very new initiative where you can investigate areas of the UK, looking at house price indexes, public transport data, etc. If we have truly open data, we could really build on this idea. We might be able to work out the best places to live if we want a quiet area with certain local amenities, and need to be at work for a certain time but have certain restrains on travel. Defra has a noise map of England, but it is not open information - we can't combine it with other information.

Julian felt that Open Data will only work if it benefits people in their everyday existence. This may be true on a city scale. On a national scale I think that people have to be more visionary. It may or may not have a discernable impact on everyday living, but it is very likely to facilitate research that will surely benefit us in the long term, be it medically, environmentally or economically.

The Open Data initiative is being sold on the idea of people becoming engaged, empowered and informed. But there are those that have their reservations. What will happen if we open up everything? Will complex issues be simplified? Is there a danger that transparent information will encourage people to draw simplistic inferences? come to the 'wrong' conclusions? Maybe we will lose the subtleties that can be found within datasets, maybe we will encourage mis-information? Maybe we will condemn areas of our cities to be ghettos? With so much information at our fingertips about where we should live, the 'better areas' might continue to benefit at the expense of other areas.

The key question is whether society is better off with the information or without the information. Certainly the UK Government is behind the initiative, and the recent 'Smarter Government' (PDF) document made a commitment to the opening up of datasets. The Government believes it can save money by opening up data, which, of course, is going to be a strong incentive.

For archivists the whole move towards numerous channels of information, open data, mashing up, recombining, reusing, keeping data fluid and dynamic is something of a nightmare from a professional point of view. In addition, if we start to see the benefits of providing everyone with access to all data, enabling them to do new and exciting things with it, then might we change our perspective about appraisal and selection. Does this make it more imperative that we keep everything?

Image: B of the Bang, Manchester

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