Vague but exciting...

Hot on the heels of our Lambeth visit, the Transparency Team headed south-west to Devon. We were eager to see the impact of Devon’s anointment to the ODI Node Network and what open data means for a rural county.

The focus of their work, Lucy Knight (Strategy, Policy and Organisational Change team at Devon County Council) explained, is to “find what data are most needed and how to make them useful to communities and business.” They have already begun this journey. In 2013 they set up the Devon Open Data Programme with support from the Breakthrough Fund, to prioritise the release of open data. Using hackathons, forums, events and training they built a network of interest across business, local government, community and academia.

Through The Data Frame they began mapping data consumption, creation, collation and curation, from the perspective of both users and providers. They quickly learned that what they needed was an inventory, as Lucy recalled, “We kept asking people what data they needed and they would say to us, ‘What have you got? Tell us what you’ve got and we’ll use it!’”

This highlights the role of communications in open data. Kevin Gillick (Strategy, Policy and Organisational Change team at Devon County Council) explained that the story of open data is important for a range of audiences, “for local government to communicate available data, for developers to connect to the people that the application is aimed at, and to enable citizens to understand what the data means.” This was reiterated by Councillor Barry Parsons who emphasised the importance of ensuring Members are informed of open data’s potential.

So what does that story look like? The initial focus of Devon’s ODI Node is environment and climate data. This is particularly fertile ground for open data because it is easy to see how the availability of data affects our lives – advanced flood warnings, informed renewable energy policies and reduced transport disruption. As Chief Executive Phil Norrey explains, this chimes well with the launch of the Met Office’s supercomputer in Exeter in September 2015: “We want to be at the centre of open data and really turn ourselves inside out.”

The ODI Node presents a unique opportunity to do this, to tell the story. As a communications node, Devon will be particularly focused on promoting understanding about open data and bringing together regional innovations with the best examples from around the world. This is something we can all benefit from.

But the task is not straightforward. Heads of Service discussed the challenges of creating a shared and clear message across a wide range of data owners, and how to prioritise the communication of different datasets. Tony Parker, Head of Communications, explained that the narrative around open data comes out of the ways in which it is used.

This sentiment was echoed in Kevin Gillick’s presentation, where he honed in on a hand written comment scrawled on top of a 1989 paper titled ‘Information Management: A Proposal.’ The comment read ‘Vague but exciting.’ And the paper? Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s landmark proposal for a universal linked information system, which some years later became known as the World Wide Web.

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