March 26, 2014
On the edge of something big?

Salford City Council was invited to join the Greater Manchester Data Synchronisation Programme at its beginning.  This was a great opportunity for us, we knew about open data as we’ve been publishing some for around three years, but the big opportunity now seemed to lie with five star open data.  It sounded fantastic, link your open data to other open data, the semantic web, give new insights by joining all of this stuff up, create stunning new visualisations from new web based technologies. Tim Berners-Lee backs all this up, so great!  Except we had a problem, where to start, how to do it? Where would we look for help, and who could do it?  Then there was the technology, RDF formats, triples, quad stores, SparQL, plenty of new concepts that we knew little about; so lots of questions and no easy answers. We did of course understand our data, but the real problem was moving it on to the five star format.

Where the GMDSP came in

By being one of the first three authorities (with Manchester and Trafford), we have got a really helpful start.  The barriers between us and five star data were pretty much removed by the GMDSP code fellows joining us, this created the capacity for us to meet the aims of the programme.

At the local authority end, we were able to concentrate on what we knew best, our data, where it is, who to talk to about getting it. This hasn’t always been easy, some of the data we hold is constrained by licensing and although we’re encouraged to be open about our data, this can hold us back.  However, it’s only by confronting issues like these that you can start to really understand them. From this you can try to find help and ways of getting around the constraints while staying inside the rules.

The code fellows were able to concentrate on what they could do best, modelling our data, converting it into RDF format, and getting it into our quad store.  A lot of the work by the code fellows was new to them, but by working alongside each other they shared knowledge and learnt new skills very quickly. They’ve compared our data too, and that’s valuable feedback to us that will help us when looking to produce new data.

Looking forwards (and backwards)

Last Monday evening I attended the GMDSP Data Dive at the Techhub in Manchester.  Future Everything through the Open Data Manchester community set this up, and this was the first chance for the developer community to take a first look at the actual data and hear about the coding challenges for the weekend.  There’s plenty of interest in the output of the code fellows work, and the data challenges will give the competitors a chance to work with all the data in topical ways.  I’m really looking forward to seeing what’s produced by Sunday afternoon by the teams taking part.  Apart form using the data in ways that we might guess (from a local government viewpoint), the teams are free to use their imagination in other ways, and this is probably the most interesting part for us.  Will we see new insights into the value of allotments or recycling, or how we can improve the health and well being of our communities? Or will we see new ways of using our data alongside other linked data? We’ll see by Sunday, and hope we’ve something exciting and new to take back to the staff that helped contribute the data.

There’s also an opportunity for us to look back now at what we’ve learnt. How well did we extract the data, was it good enough quality? What skills do we need to bring back to Salford (and Trafford and Manchester) to make sure we can build on the work to date? All of this is worth reflecting on, and we also need to bear in mind that this is just the start really. The GM part of GMDSP tells you where the programme should be going next, and with the Catapults behind the project maybe beyond GM after that.

John Gibbons 

Twitter: @johnsg6977

Salford City Council

26 March 2014


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