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.

Learning to code, advice for inquisitive non-coders from the GDNdi

As a very brief intro the Guardian Developer Network Drop In (GDNdi) it is explained here and the next one’s announced here. As a result of the May drop ins, Alan Rusbridger invited three of the developers to speak at the Guardian morning conference about their projects and what they were working on, including Anna Powell-Smith’s work on the Domesday Book and the Domesday Map, Angus Fox’s work on Multizone social mobile apps for UK Police and Rob Mckinnon’s Who’s Lobbying – all projects that are self-funded/delivered on a shoe-string but driven by the developers’ own passion for the subject. There were many developers who dropped in and who will feature if they fancy, but these three were a lovely start.

The burning question after the morning conference was: ‘how can I learn to code?’

The following is advice received from Anna and Rob, I can lay no claim other than asking the question, getting the answer and permission to blog about it – but it is such a common question that I thought it was important to share their advice, as it can help everyone (who wants to know :))

As far as programming languages go for the beginner we recommend Python or Ruby above anything else, certainly!

Learn Python the Hard Way: http://learnpythonthehardway.org (*FREE* book with structured exercises) Paul Bradshaw, who is a journalist who has learned to code, used this and recommended it highly.

There’s a nice quote in the afterword to the book:

“Programming as a profession is only moderately interesting….. You are much better off using code as your secret weapon in another profession. People who can code in biology, medicine, government, sociology, physics, history, and mathematics are respected and can do amazing things to advance those disciplines.”

There’s an online Ruby tutorial here: http://TryRuby.org/

The ScraperWiki tutorials are good to do some practical scraping (Anna Powell-Smith wrote a bunch of them) http://scraperwiki.com/about/

Once you’ve done the book/tutorial, then you should pick a real-world problem you want to solve, find a tame coder, and just do it.

In the spirit of “open everything” and hopefully the benefit you have gained from this advice, please do champion Anna and Rob’s projects as well as those of any developers you know. And if you are a developer, please do come along to our drop-ins, you can work in peace but we also have lots of things happening at the moment in the Guardian if you want to know a bit more.

There is of course the fabulous hacks and hackers for those journalists who are keen on being a part of a community hungry to learn more.