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If you open stuff up, good stuff happens

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Open Data

It’s almost a year since my first post on the DATA.GOV.UK blog, introducing Hampshire Hub - the local information system for Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. A lot has happened since then, with the old web site being replaced by a brand new data store, built on 5 star linked open data. I’m really excited about the new hub, and there’s lots to tell you about that, but not in this post.

On course, really

I rather like the phrase: “Engineering Serendipity” which - as I choose to interpret it - means something like ‘creating conditions which maximise the chances of good stuff happening’. If you’re interested in a fuller discussion of Engineering Serendipity, there’s the excellent article written by Greg Lindsay over on Aspen Ideas.

I’ll come back to engineering serendipity a bit later. Please bear with me in the meantime, however, as I veer off-course to talk briefly about TV chefs.

Don’t watch, just cook

I love good food, and also enjoy cooking, but I never watch cookery programmes on television. I totally ‘get’ why people find the genre entertaining and informative, it just doesn’t do-it for me personally. My view is: if I have enough time to watch someone else cooking, then I might as well spend the time preparing a meal.

TV Chefery

When I say I “never” watch cookery programmes, it isn’t strictly true - I did watch some TV chefery a couple of weeks ago, as an episode of the “Hairy Bikers” was on in the background during a family get-together. In this particular episode - filmed in Bangkok during a recent tour of Asia - the Hairy Bikers were seeking the perfect recipe for Thai Green Curry.

Big break

They visited Aunty Daeng, a self-taught cook with an international reputation. Apparently, Aunty’s big break came when she prepared a meal for a royal visit to the government department where she was working at the time. The royals were so impressed, they invited her to become their private chef. Had the royals not had the opportunity to taste Aunty Daeng’s food, she might still be working in a government department.

For all I know, Aunty Daeng’s old job may have been hugely worthwhile, and I’m not knocking working in a government department. My point is that a set of circumstances were created which led to Aunty Daeng’s career taking off.

What’s this got to do with Open Data?

I’m glad you asked.

Several times recently, I’ve noticed a combination of ‘chance’ and open data leading to good things that weren’t anticipated by the publishers of the data. Here are a few examples:

Blue Lights and severe weather events

BluelightCamp is a free annual unconference and open data hack which brings together people with some sort of interest in emergency services. In previous years, BlueLightCamp has been linked with British APCO’s annual exhibition in Manchester, and in 2013 we introduced an open data hack element.

In 2014 we held BluelightCamp in Hampshire instead, which meant that, for the first time, BlueLightCamp ‘met’ Hampshire Hub. This led to the birth of a new initiative: WUDOWUD. I won’t go into the detail here, as there’s an article about it on British APCO’s web site, co-written with Chris Cooper of Know Now Information.

Food, pubs and bus stops

Last November, we held the latest in a series of ‘Informing Hampshire’ events which are pitched at (mostly) people who help inform public service decision-making in-and-around Hampshire.

One of the presenters was Chris Gutteridge from the University of Southampton who mentioned during his presentation that he’d taken Food Hygiene Certificates open data (published by the Food Standards Agency), together with Public Transport open data, and presented it (along with lots of other useful stuff) on a map for students and staff.

That could be handy for anyone looking for a pub which serves food, and is near to a bus stop (for the correct bus to get home again later). From a public safety perspective, people finding decent pubs with good public transport links are probably less likely to be tempted to drink-and-drive. From a bus company perspective, that’s more bums on seats. From an open data publisher’s perspective, it’s positive proof that it’s worthwhile releasing useful data like Food Hygiene ratings, as they’re actually being used.

Open data up in the air

In 2014 we released aerial photography for the whole of the county of Hampshire. This includes high resolution imagery, together with height data, near infrared, and the routes flown.

As we were focusing on introducing the new Hampshire Hub, we didn’t have time or resources to provide a delivery mechanism for the aerial photography as a separate project, so we just made the data available under the Open Government Licence (OGL).

A couple of months ago we were approached out of the blue by the Geodata team at the University of Southampton who have obtained funding to create an online portal to let users explore and download 3D representations of the aerial open data. Geodata have obtained funding to do the development at no cost to the Hampshire Hub, and will make their site available to the public for free. In the words of Jason Sadler who leads the Geodata team: “If you open stuff up, good stuff happens.”

A fair wind

The next example isn’t Hampshire-specific, it’s global. I first heard about it during a presentation given at The Graphical Web, an event run by Alan Smith, who leads the Data Visualisation team at the Office for National Statistics (ONS). If you haven’t seen The Graphical Web before, I heartily recommend it, and all of the presentations were recorded and are available through the site.

Cameron Beccario gave a talk about The Wind Map: a ‘visualization of global weather conditions forecast by supercomputers updated every three hours’. Actually, it’s not ‘just’ that, and amongst other things includes ocean temperatures and waves, regularly updated. It’s a superb undertaking, and is the result of many hundreds of hours of effort.

The Wind Map is an excellent example of really good stuff happening when data is opened up. It wouldn’t have been possible had the data not been made freely available by the U.S. National Weather Service and others.

Open Data Camp - Engineering Serendipity

Ok, I confess, there’s a sub-plot here. Part of the reason for writing this post is to plug an event I’m co-organising. It’s Open Data Camp, which is in Winchester on the 21-22nd February 2015. Yes, that’s a weekend.

As far as I’m aware, it’s a UK-first, combining the ‘unconference’ format with a theme of open data. There will also be opportunities to ‘make stuff’ with open data over the weekend.

Tickets are being released in batches through Eventbrite. You’ll have to be quick, though, as they’re going fast.

Thank you sponsors

The organisers* are really grateful to Hampshire County Council for letting us use their fabulous HQ venue free of charge, and Matthew Buck of Drawnalism who donated the artwork and branding we’re using for the event.

Several others have offered their support and we’re following-up on the detail. We still seeking additional sponsors to help make the event go with a bang, so if you’re interested, please get in touch.

It’s a kinda magic

I’m convinced magic will take place at Open Data Camp, just like it does at other unconferences like UKGovCamp. Open Data Camp is open to the public, is free to attend, and spans all sectors. I’m hoping that new initiatives, ideas and collaborations will ‘pop-out’ from Open Data Camp - even though I’ve no idea what they might be. As event organisers we’re just trying to create the conditions which maximise the chances of good stuff happening.


* There are a bunch of people on the organising team for Open Data Camp, ranging from as far North as Manchester, and as far south as Devon:

James Cattell

Neil Ford

Hendrik Grothuis

Martin Howitt

Lucy Knight

Pauline Roche

Giuseppe Sollazzo

Sasha Taylor

Sian Thomas

Jamie Whyte

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  1. Comment by davidpatto posted on

    Great article Mark,

    I've really enjoyed ferreting around in the data on the Hampshire Hub and using some commonly available web tools such as manyeyes or Google Charts.

    Hopefully more government organisations will follow your lead and ensure that where possible, data that relates to citizens and public assets is made open and accessible.

    • Replies to davidpatto>

      Comment by markbraggins posted on

      Hi David, thank you very much indeed. I'm glad you enjoyed the blog post, and am really pleased you are finding the Hampshire Hub a useful resource

  2. Comment by SianT posted on

    Great to see FHRS data in use. Food Standards Agency is keen to make more useful data available. Let me know if you want to use any of our data - particularly if you are having problems. Really looking forward to the camp. Thinking about getting some posts together about some of the things we are looking for help with!

    • Replies to SianT>

      Comment by markbraggins posted on

      Thanks for leaving a comment, Sian - glad you like the example and that you're looking forward to Open Data Camp (I am too!). Some posts about the data would be really useful - lots of space on the Open Data Camp blog, and I'm sure would welcome a post as well

  3. Comment by Sara Palmer posted on

    I would love to be kept in the loop about these...will I get email reminders from being signed up to the page? I don't seem to be able to amend my subscription preferences...

    • Replies to Sara Palmer>

      Comment by markbraggins posted on

      Hi Sara, I'm really sorry, I only just spotted your question. I'm not sure about the automatic updates from Hopefully you're already aware of the next Open Data Camp event which is 10-11th October in Manchester. There's more info on the web site at: and registration is via Eventbrite at:  - I'll be writing an update post on here within the next couple of weeks


  4. Comment by markbraggins posted on

    Hi Sara - I followed-up about your email update question. I think you should get an email update when a blog post changes on, or when someone leaves a comment on that post (so hopefully, you'll receive this comment as an email!) Unfortunately, there's currently no mechanism to be automatically notified when there are new events (though if you're interested, I'll try and incorporate it in to the events section of the experimental open data storytelling site I'm working on: "Open data Aha!" )

  5. Comment by markbraggins posted on

    I'd just like to correct an error in the credits for the Southampton Open data Map, which was created by Colin R. Williams with support from Dr Ash Smith and Chris Gutteridge. My apologies to Colin for neglecting to credit him in my original post.