What’s the next challenge for Open Government data?

So three years in to data.gov.uk and the inaugural National Hack the Government Day and now there is a tick box exercise to “run a hack day”… please… someone… anyone?

Open data is not about hack days and running one does not achieve “engagement with the developer community”.


I met Liz Azyan today. Someone whom I have been aware of for the last few years: blogs great stuff, is principled and keeps herself gainfully employed with a plethora of socially ethical social media support (if you know what I mean).

I was blindsided by her, she is awesome and I think really trying her damnedest to do the right thing in an environment that she totally understands, but with a community she is less accustomed to – yet. Watch this space, and government data geeks: I urge you to chat to her if you get a chance.

One of the questions she asked me today was: What is the next challenge for open government data? So thank you Liz for the inspiration for this blog post, it got me thinking about something I have not thought about much, recently.

The environment

Government has opened up quite a bit of data through data.gov.uk, and has encouraged engagement with keen developers who have been hankering after such information for years.

Industry too has embraced Open, with a small number of notable businesses throwing open their data doors, with good results. I wrote a post about this, I shan’t repeat myself and bore you.

APIs are being released almost every day – developer information overload has maxed out, and now we risk lethal developer apathy.

Developers have attended hack days, meetings in Whitehall – indeed many of them have joined AlphaGov. This is all fabulous; but not scalable to the extreme that the open data dream promises.

The challenge

Making it all work.

It’s all very well having developers working away with this data, but if government is not ready for it, it’s a waste of time.

Take just one example: two incredibly talented developers worked together over the course of a weekend hack last year, coding through the night to create a notification engine for the government Tell Us Once programme. It worked, it would have saved oodles of time and bucketloads of cash – but government was simply unable to implement it. This is one simplified example of 100s of apps created by Rewired State hack days alone, and there are many others.

Now, if you can imagine for a minute being a developer, donating your time – granted, sometimes the hack days are paid, but always weekends away from family – year on year creating apps that would help government and citizens. Solving problems time and time again – quick example, every year the Young Rewired State coders create apps to help them define safe routes to school/friends. Year on year we showcase these to the Home Office – nothing happens. Still no government supported/approved app to meet this obviously critical need.

Why would you bother?

Open data? Awesome, and we are making tracks.

Open Government? HARD, and we are not banging on that door yet.

The reality

The developers who work on government data often do so either out of personal frustration, or a genuine commitment to making the world a little bit better.

Rarely can they reach an audience that would benefit from their app/widget/website on their own and in their spare time, at least not without considerable support. Nor are they doing this for profit, so they are not going to get investor cash.

Helping government do its work better is not a good proposition for your typical angel or VC – the target is government; and only government can utilise the genius that they are being offered.

Lots of tiny arrows

Right now lots of tiny arrows are rained on the government portals day on day, by an increasingly disparate and desolate group of extremely talented people.

Is there any success anywhere? No. Well unless you count the oft-reported GovSpark created by Issy in Young Rewired State 2010, curated by a plethora of supportive geeks and designers and some financial and hosting support from The Stationery Office. But that was a ‘nice to have’ addition to a Prime Ministerial commitment. It was not a revolutionary way to interact with central or local government.

So what’s the next challenge for Open Government data?

Forget the data.

Find a way to enable these revolutionary ideas, apps, websites and widgets that save time, money and mind-numbing frustration from those who have to engage with government.

Do that, and only that.

And when you have done that – then engage the developers again around your open data through hack days, geek advisory boards or whatever means you can.

Until then, let them have a break. They’ll still be there if you do this. If you don’t, they won’t.

And that is ridiculous.

Also, please don’t insist people ‘do hack days’ for you. Here’s the point of a hack day.

Oh goody I thought of a social media bent on EA!!!

One of the problems that has to be managed and taken very seriously whenever an organisational change/review is rolling out – is comms. People are understandably nervous about the effect on their lives, livelihoods and career plans. Best way to reassure them? Conversation and information – right up the street of social media communication. Perfect – so long as all the other stuff is there to support it too: informed managers, stakeholder support, champions in the organisation and face to face ‘surgeries’ for explicit concerns or for information drives.

It is also a very easy tool to keep everyone informed of progress…


Enterprise architecture (EA) – does it help?

I have been asked to put together some information on how the Home Office would benefit from enterprise architecture. This is far removed from social media, but communicating it need not be! To help me I am just bashing down some thoughts here – any input from any of you wise ones out there would be welcomed.

If you do not know what EA is there is a very good description on Wikipedia. Essentially, it is a root and branch review of all business processes, practice and strategy of an organisation, with a planned way forward that addresses weaknesses highlighted. Most people associate it with IT, this is essentially because it was ‘invented when IT people started thinking out of the box’ (thanks Paul Clarke) – and certainly the IT infrastructure forms a vital part of the review, and enables successful change (as a part of the building up stage of EA).

I think any organisation would benefit from putting itself under the microscope like this, whether to streamline work processes, save money, be more efficient – or simply check that you are doing what you said you would be doing when you started out; and government is no exception (even though departments do like to navel gaze at regular intervals).

In theory, EA should:

  • reduce business risk
  • boost staff morale
  • develop a more democratic working environment
  • end silo working
  • create core reference point for decision-making
  • ultimately save money

However, in order to do this it must:

  • have the buy-in of all management levels
  • be positioned at the heart of the organisation and not just directions from SCS/Board
  • be properly communicated with stakeholders and members of staff
  • have a simple consultation method that enables democratic conversation
  • be recognised as a technology enabled change programme and treated as such

Thoughts welcomed