Going Local

Is data dull? The answer to this question is a resounding NO! In August 2010 NESTA launched a programme called Make it Local. The aim of the programme is to help show local authorities how to make the most of opening their data and working with digital developers to provide useful web-based services for their communities.

I’m definitely not a data expert, however I’ve been truly inspired by the people and the organisations involved in this programme and the services they are creating. Through working on the programme I’ve also been inspired by the enormous amount of cool stuff that’s out there, using open data. As individuals we can now find out how our taxes are spent via Where does my money go, gain a bird’s eye view of London’s underground system with transport maps and even make more informed decisions about the restaurants we want to eat in with Scores on the Doors.

I find it captivating that there are people out there willing to create more of these services because they believe in transparent politics, a fairer society or simply because they want to create something fun. But should it stop there? Why should it just be one developer and a laptop working autonomously for the greater good? Isn’t the role of a local authority to run efficient services that benefit their community and enhance a person’s wellbeing?

Each of the projects involved in the Make it Local programme have created something new and exciting; partnerships have grown between councils, developers and individuals and communities are engaged and empowered by the new services being created.

I believe we might be on the cusp of data revolution. It’s great to see lots of councils publishing their data online and inviting developers to work their magic. But why not go a step further and build strategic partnerships with developers, digital agencies and the community. Creating something meaningful, helping to drive a thriving local economy and creating services which enhance our lives; surely that’s the end game?

You may or may not agree with everything I’ve said here; you may have some ideas on what should happen next or some thoughts about data in general so I’d like to give you an opportunity to come along to an event we’re holding here at NESTA, the Make it Local showcase. You’ll hear more about each of the projects involved in the programme, have an opportunity to debate some of the issues, challenge your thinking and hopefully be inspired by the possibilities ahead. Join us on 14 April and have your say in what you believe should happen next.

Deborah Fox, Programme Manager, NESTA

API progress, RSS feeds and twitter

The API for the Sutton Library catalogue is working and Adrian is looking at the best way to make it useful for developers and integrate with the bookshare service. It’s not perfect and might not do everything we had hoped, but I have seen it and know it exists. It feels as though we are nearly there.

The bookshare site has also add some more development with the introduction of RSS feeds and links through to searches on the sutton library site and amazon.

Finally, Sutton Bookshare is now on Twitter, follow @suttonbookshare  for alerts on new titles as they are added to the collection.

Borrow Books and Carry On

Courtesy of Adrian Short

Ex-libris and making it great since day one.

Last week the Sutton Bookshare project team (me and Adrian) met with James from Rattle Research to talk through how we felt the project had gone and how close the final product was to the original concept.

Perhaps one of the most important lessons learnt from my perspective, particularly for collaborating with an open data developer, is the importance of understanding how we all like (and sometimes need) to work. When developing a web-based service, particularly one based on encouraging social interaction, you have to take an iterative approach and change course quickly if something is not quite right.

We had initially planned a user-feedback system that reminds you when books are due, facilitates comments on reliability of users and even grades the condition of books. Then we remembered the 10th principle of the Agile Manifesto: “Simplicity (the art of maximising the amount of work not done) is essential. In this case, the Bookshare website can self-generate useful feedback and we have managed to build something that presumes trustworthiness – a presumption that might just nudge behaviour in that direction.

This simplicity of design means we have achieved something that has the potential to be great since day one. There are more features that could be introduced. Typing in an ISBN number is a bit slow and it would be great to use your Smartphone or webcam to scan things in… but it works. We launched to Sutton Council staff without instructions, we gave no advice on how to swap books and, sure enough, books are being lent.

We are now very close to the public launch and have got the final artwork for the marketing materials. As well as posters and bookmarks we have designed a bookplate – the things you used to scrawl your name on before your mum would let you take your books to school. The bookplates bring the project right back to its original purpose, this is not about kindles and e-books – it’s about showing people what books are on your shelf and letting them borrow ex-libris “from the library of…. [write name here].

Bookshare Bookplate

50 users, 500 books and 10 loans

Following our “soft launch” with Sutton staff we have a growing collection of books and users… and some lending starting to take place. The SuttonBookShare is a social site and transactions will be based entirely on trust, so we would expect to see fairly limited lending in the first few weeks. I am pleased to see that people are managing to use the service by themselves and, most importantly, finding something they would like to read.

Ben's lending activity

We have conducted a focus group with some of Sutton’s Young Advisors and library staff to get early feedback on useability. Everyone loves the idea and we had some really helpful feedback on improving the way you browse for books.

We are just looking over the proofs for the marketing materials and wrestling with the API for the Sutton Library Catalogue – with a bit of luck we will have a public launch in the next couple of weeks!

We Have Dots on a Map

Here is a sneak preview of dots, which represent individual issues raised to Birmingham City Council on the 26th Dec 2010. The dominance of green dots is because this represents the Homes and Neighbourhoods department and most of these are related to a subcategory called Housing Repairs. On Boxing Day it seems the citizens of Birmingham started to notice the cracks in the roof and the dripping tap they chose to ignore on Christmas Day.

Matt Watkins

Shifting Sands

On the 9th December 2010 in Birmingham there were:

2 enquiries about a public emergency

9 enquiries relating to odour

4 notifications of death (council tax)

1 request for information on the nearest public toilet

In the fine detail of the data emerges the hints of human stories, forming questions in the gap between the reductive nature of a categorised event and the image it forms in our minds. What odours are being enquired about? What are the public emergencies? We may never know the answers, but the data can provide a snapshot of what is happening( or at least being reported as happening) from the total volume and frequency of enquiries to the fine detail of reported events occurring within wards and postcodes.

Percentage of calls by Birmingham constituency on the 9th December 2010

Over the past month we have been wrestling with a large data set of approximately 5000 entries a day. Trying to tease out meaning from the sheer volume of information sloshing around in the tables has been a challenge. At first sight the individual records can seem meaningful, but attaching meaning to the aggregated numbers can be a bemusing process. A number of issues have come up in developing the dashboard (the one that didn’t come up was the access to the data) Birmingham City Council have been very accommodating from the start, particularly Nick Smith who has continuously provided us with data extracts tailored to our changing needs. The issues have emerged not as an issue of access to data but rather how to understand and interpret the data. I have outlined these issues below:

1. Terminology

As with any data set understanding the terminology is key. Each enquiry received is categorised into location and type. The type refers to a set of council directorates and their sub categories (4 levels). The naming of these directorates can be confusing to the outside eye. Titles like Chief Executives don’t really allude to what is contained within, similarly Development and Culture seems such a broad church that practically any council activity could contained within. With this comes layer upon layer of abbreviation that has to be defined and turned into plain english from “services” being abbreviated to “svs” and CYPD – Children, Young People and Families.

2. System Overview

We have been constructing the dashboard from the data up. So the our view of the fields and table’s is based upon the data that is in them. If there is not an enquiry to a particular field we have no idea whether it exists or not. We only know so much about the framework of the whole CRM (contact relationship management) system. So there is always an element of working in the dark.

3. Shifting Sands

When you are dealing with a live dataset that encompasses the total activity of an organisation as complex and mutable as a city council. The chances  of directorate structures to staying the same is very low. Each new data extract we may see a re-shuffle in a department that changes the naming of a council activity or that activity moving to a  new directorate. For a project that is live and tracking council traffic daily this could present a significant challenge.

4. Time

As the maps and graphs assemble in our views of the data, it is difficult to see specific events occurring as the general spread may be to wide the changes to insignificant in a 24 hour period. But once the dashboard starts collecting over days and months, we may need to look at how best to re-factor the way we present the merging trends. Trying to design for the unknown is an interesting process.

We are close to launching the dashboard. However we are now at the mercy of the City Councils’ private contractors who will be producing the daily feed from the CRM. This has been approved as a work order, but when this comes into play is still a matter for how high a priority we are in the council’s IT rollout.

Matt Watkins

I registered a book today

The Sutton Open Library project has always had two distinct (and connected) things it is trying to achieve – opening up the library data and creating an experimental new book share service.

Lots of work has gone into getting to where we are right now, but it is great to have achieved two big milestones before Christmas:

  1. I have an invoice from the library database management company
  2. I registered my first book on the Sutton Bookshare service

The first milestone represents all of the discussions and negotiations between the council, Adrian (our local developer) and the company that manages the library data. It was, in the end, fairly straightforward – Adrian and the database company had a chat, requirements were agreed and a REST API is about to be made available. Few little things to sort out on the council side (network permissions, IT business case, me telling people what I have been up to!) and we are away.

If this all goes well I can arrange a hack day for the New Year and invite any interested developers to come to Sutton and play with some real time library data.

The real landmark was seeing the Sutton Bookshare development site. I logged in, entered an ISBN and instantly (the website is lightening fast) saw a cover, synopsis, author and category registered on my account – ready to share with the other users.

Sutton Bookshare home page

Sutton Bookshare

There is still a lot of development work to do and a comms campaign needs to be ready to promote it, but today I saw it work and I cannot wait to get it out there.