Small essay on Rewired State, Open Data and future of public service

So I have been out of government now for over two months… seems a lot longer. It has been incredibly good to focus on Rewired State properly and to try to grab hold of and contain what we started, so that it does not spiral into something useless. The Guardian have been utterly generous and supportive in this move and I have been working with them as well – which continues to be fun.

Some of you may have noticed that we are talking quite a bit with the dev community and our friends about the future of Rewired State; these discussions have been lively and brain aching – but very good. We are running one in Manchester on the 22nd October, as there is a large and engaged RS dev community there.

So, I thought I would do a very small update (that escalated) on what seems to be coming out of this time of looking at RS’s future.

The data goldmine

Firstly, there is still a great need for people and businesses to centre themselves around the trojan work of the Cabinet Office in opening government data through data.gov.uk and legislation.gov.uk. Those of you who have been fans of Rewired State may remember that when we ran National Hack the Government Day in March 2009, there was no such thing; Richard Pope scraped all the data he could lay his hands on in the days and weeks before the event and the potential for what could happen with open data was laid bare for all to see.

Within no time Cabinet Office were working up data.gov.uk and brought in all manner of luminaries, futurologists and geeks – as well as a small number of us already working in departments across Whitehall – we set to work: teasing, coaxing and cajoling the data out of startled officials, who had no idea of the value their spreadsheet/database or even micro fiche (on one occasion). It was an incredible achievement and one that we should be proud of; it was speedy, open and a bit messy – but how fabulous and refreshing, and what superb grounding for creating a crude base that works for everyone – something that we can build together as well as tailor to individual needs. (I would like to rally people back to this cause now – it needs to be worked at and supported as a community, we can do that – there is no *way* of doing this, but I know that Thayer Prime @thayer, Richard Stirling @rchards and James Forrester (sorry have forgotten yr twitter handle, James!) would gladly tell you how you might help).

Data.gov.uk provides us with a rich seam of sustainable information, information that could be the building blocks of the revitalisation of enterprise in this country. Right now, the people who are realising the benefits are developers with defined and respected skill sets – either for worthy social causes that have always bugged them, or perhaps more commercial use – like timetric.com <- those boys were always years ahead of the market and I am so pleased to see them growing steadily and continuing their extraordinary business. Yet still, even though there are mobile app developers out there making stuff that we all find useful, it is still really the preserve of the geek – this data wash – and in order for government to really see the value of this, it needs to translate into value for the general public, a circular feed of data that washes through the community bringing information, perhaps income  and brings communities together – as is the wont of this digital age.

The work now needs to focus on how we interpret the information on data.gov.uk into something of value to everyone, not just in the way they can receive it, the ‘cut’ of the data that might perhaps give them a differing view of a school, rather than just Ofsted and their data, for example – but how can everyone have a go.

Efforts like Landshare really grab my attention. If you go and have a look at what they do, then imagine that local councils work with Landshare, and use the data they have to perhaps build a view of their community – perhaps the elderly lady who has given her garden to Landshare, has a drive that she would also like to rent out as she is no longer driving and has no car. Now she can create an income and join a new community. If she is encouraged to do this online, perhaps she would be willing to add to an information drive to map – say – all the disused land in the UK, and provide feedback online to build such a data set; or post boxes in her area, or anything really – you see where I am going with this? So from the open data drive, there is potential for a person who would be the last person you would expect to derive direct financial and community benefit – is that not the whole Big Idea?

We are not far off this, but we are drifting a bit, I feel, and very fragmented. With the retirement of Andrew Stott – who is a great and, when necessary, brutal champion of open data – and an absence of an obvious figure-head – it has crossed my mind that the Coalition may not see this as a focus for their agenda. If this is the case then I think we need to build our own head of steam, and drive this movement to the tipping point we need to enable the explosion of innovation and potential revenue.

It’s tricky at the moment because we are in the inevitable chaos stage, with data not exactly pouring but stumbling and limping from departments into data.gov.uk – Martha working to get people online with raceonline.org, Helen working with UK Online centres, Open Knowledge Foundation, My Society and us working on a variety of challenges that err on the side of the geeky as well as the Guardian Open Platform and their more commercial work with government and industry. The emergence of initiatives such as linkedgov.org – a dev community based effort to make the data make sense shows the tiny shift outwards from the information trough that has been feeding the data-hungry devs – if I remember one thing from every single Rewired State event, it has been the constant cry for more data (so much so that on many occasions the audience has joined in as the developers end their presentations with pleas for data) – well luckily, there is always more, and always will be: lovely sustainable stuff that it is :)

But taking the big vision, the proper head above the parapet moment, what has to happen as a big leap into translating this stream of data and tables into a valuable source of information and commerce to everyone who is not blessed with binary brilliance. This is unlikely to be one thing, or enabled by any one person, but it will be a steady rise in the number of initiatives that realise value of this information for many communities, that weave themselves into the heart of every day life that will bring us to this epiphany.

So… please can we all rally back around data.gov.uk and start having a look over our shoulders as we work the code, and see where we can sling something of value out there, the more we sling, the more likely we are to build value for everyone.

To this end, these are the events Rewired State is running over the next few months. We will create many prototypes from the public sector data, some will go on to great things, some may become parts of other things and others will just slumber on until they may be useful in the future. In the mean time, we have found some brilliantly fun ways of playing!

Very important point to note here is that Rewired State will work with everyone if they are looking to do things better, are asking for our help in order to do things better – you will definitely see a rise in a number of events that are sponsored by companies that may seem to be from ‘the past’, we always look at the ethics and drivers for working with such bodies, so please trust that we are not just taking any buck we get. We work on a 50:50 balance. 50% of the work we do we try to be fun/creative/worthy and 50% is commissioned, paid help. This way, certainly for the next 6 months, we should be able to move forward and bring value, whilst remaining true to our original plan of showing government what is possible, whilst they show us what is needed.

So, here goes – in date order:

6th October sees the start of a very exciting few months, with developers in the community in and around Rewired State working with NHS Choices data and digital signage boards in UK train stations and bus stops http://rewiredstate.org/events/nhs-big-screens. The idea here is to set a challenge to see what can be done with raw public data, using a slightly different medium. These boards can play such a great part in games, mobile and interactive web applications and we are very excited about what will come of this developer challenge. We still have places, do sign up, it is for glory not pay – but will definitely inspire the old creative developer juices. You will be able to see what we did, live, on these screens between the 13th and 31st December across the UK.

On the weekend of the 30th and 31st of October we are running a Carbon and Energy hack event with 10:10, Carbon Culture and the Guardian http://rewiredstate.org/events/carbon-and-energy. This is a true hack weekend. There is so much that everyone would love to do, but so little time, so this is a bit of a playground event for developers of all creeds. It is not paid, we do need sponsors for this, however – as we need to cover some costs – but it will be fun.

On the 13th and 14th November we are running a developer weekend on behalf of DotGovLabs http://rewiredstate.org/events/dotgovlabs_weekender. They are going to be launching a platform to bring together Big Society challenges and it is a massive experiment. From the beginning they have asked for Rewired State to be involved, after we ran an event with them last year, and we are very happy to throw our hat in to see if this is a potential way to match data and real need – using agile development as one of the potential solutions, or a part of the solution at least. It is an experiment. It is paid and we can accomodate a few more developers (as I write this).

There are a few more events lined up for this year, including a postponed one for the Technology Strategy Board in November, but we won’t recruit again until we have signed everything up properly.

Next year we will be running National Hack the Government Day as ever in March, Young Rewired State is currently billed for May, and we are testing the waters to see if there is any interest in Rewired Stately: an event aimed at developers aged 50+. We will also run events that we are asked to run, and we will maintain the balance between paid/sponsored/free.

Currently we are an incorporated Limited Company, needs must to work with government – but we are working right now as a not for profit, we don’t have shareholders who wait for dividends – well right now the only shareholders are myself, James Darling and Richard Pope, and we are not taking dividend payments. Any profit we make goes back into running the unpaid RS events; (in the past we put our profit into the community, such as HackSpace, but that is getting a bit more tricky as everyone has less cash to spend). But we are growing, and we will need help to grow, so it may well be that in the next year or so the basis of our funding may change, but we won’t hide this if and when it happens.

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