Open Data Engagement recommended by UK Public Administration Committee

Following advocacy by Involve, the UK Government Public Administration Committee have recommended that the UK Government move towards applying the 5 Stars of Engagement to their open data publications. Their report states:

56. The Government should adopt a star-rating system for engagement, as recommended by Involve, for measuring, and reporting to Parliament on, Departments’ progress on increasing accountability through open data. The Government should expect Departments to set out plans to move towards Five Star Engagement for all their data releases.

Right now, the five stars of open data engagement offer a relatively subjective framework, designed to encourage those responsible for open data publication to critically consider how to improve the participatory nature of their open data work. If the government moves forward with this recommendation, there will be an interesting opportunity to consider how the engagement five-star system can also function as an assessment tool.

You can join the discussion on the Open Data Engagement mailing list.

UK Open Government National Action Plan

Open Government Partnership: UK National Action Plan 2013 to 2015The UK’s Open Government Partnership 2013 National Action Plan references the Open Data Engagement principles, outlining how their work on the Open Data Communities platform is:

  • demand driven, eg by working closely with Homelessness charities to prioritise release of homelessness statistics in response to their specific business needs
  • putting data in context, eg by clearly describing the data provided, including information about frequency of updates, data formats and data quality. And also providing qualitative information such as details of how the data was created and documentation on retrieving and working with the data;
  • supporting conversation around data, eg through partnership with the county of Hampshire to delivering new tools within the Hampshire Hub to enable users to comment on datasets, including sources from DCLG’s OpenDataCommunities service, and network with other data users;

Hopefully DCLG will also work towards the next stars in the engagement framework by building capacity of the community to use data, and by collaborating with citizens on creation of data and on shaping data collection.

The Open Data Communities has also worked to achieve five stars of linked open data, showing how these frameworks can work together to improve both quality of and usability of open data.

Land Registry Publish Available Data

The UK Land Registry has published a Dataset Inventory, listing all the data held inside the organisation, and noting which data it may be possible to release in future.

The Land Registry commit to publish all data they can openly license by 2018, and by making clear the data available they are opening up the possibility of their choices about what to prioritise being driven by user demand.

The FAQ page about the project lists clear contact details, including a phone number, for asking questions about the data.

Chicago use GitHub to collaborate on datasets

The City of Chicago have placed a number of datasets on the social coding platform ‘GitHub’ which allows technically skilled users to ‘fork’ a copy of the data, edit it, and submit the changes back to the City, leading to shared work to maintain and keep the date up to date.

You can see how active citizens have been interacting with the datasets through the analytics GitHub provides.


Going beyond data release

new paper from Marijn Janssena, Yannis Charalabidis & Anneke Zuiderwijk, on Benefits, Adoption Barriers and Myths of Open Data and Open Government highlights the importance of governments looking beyond the simple release of data, to also address feedback loops and organisational change.

The authors argue that without attention to learning from institutional and systems theory, opening data could lead to institutional structures being reinforced, rather than leading to a transformation in the business of government. They highlight the importance of thinking about feedback systems, alongside ways of publishing data:

“The implication of the notion of feedback in systems theory is that, in opening their data, governments should not simply instigate one-way communication of their data but should expect or actively solicit feedback and be able to make sense of this feedback. The opening of systems provides the opportunity for creating feedback loops in which the government can learn from the public.” 

Their analysis outlines some of the challenges that governments will need to face in developing open data engagement, but also suggests that meeting those challenges will be important if the potential of open data is to be realised.

How is laying foundations for open data engagement

Originally posted as a Guest Post for the re-launch of

When the first platform was launched, it was a great example of the ‘rewired state’ spirit: pioneering the rapid development of a new digital part of government using open source code, and developed through fluid collaboration between government staff, academics, open source developers, and open data activists from outside government. But essentially, the first was bolted onto the existing machinery of government: a data outpost scraping together details of datasets from across departments, and acting as the broker providing the world with information on where to access that data. And it is fair to say was designed by data-geeks, for data-geeks.

Tom Steinberg has argued that data portals need not appeal to the masses , and that most people will access government data through apps, but there are thousands of citizens who want direct access to data, and it is vital that data portals don’t exclude those unfamiliar with the design metaphors of source and software repositories. That’s why it is great to see a redesign of that takes steps to simplify the user experience for anyone seeking out data, whether as a techie, or not.

The most interesting changes to though are more subtle than the cleaner navigation and unexpected (but refreshing) green colour scheme. Behind the scenes Antonio Acuna and his team have been overhauling the admin system where data records are managed, with some important implications. Firstly, the site includes a clear hierarchy of publishing organisations (over 700 of them) and somewhere in each hierarchy there is a named contact to be found. That means that when you’re looking at any dataset it’s now easier to find out who you can contact to ask questions about it, or, if the data doesn’t tell you what you want, the new lets you exercise your Right to Information (and hopefully soon Right to Data) and points you to how you can submit a Freedom of Information request.

Whilst at first most of these enquiries will go off to the lead person in each publishing organisation who updates their records, the site allows contact details to be set at the dataset level, moving towards the idea of data catalogues not as a firewall sitting between government and citizens, but as the starting point of a conversation between data owners/data stewards and citizens with an interest in the data. Using data to generate conversation, and more citizen-state collaboration, is one of the key ideas in the 5 stars for open data engagement , drafted at this year’s UKGovCamp.

The addition of a Library section with space  for detailed documentation on datasets, including space to share the PDF handbooks that often accompany complex datasets and that share lots of the context that can’t be reduced down into neat meta-data, is a valuable addition too. I hope we’ll see a lot more of the ‘social life’ of the datasets that government holds becoming apparent on the new site over time – highlighting that not only can data be used to tell stories, but that there is a story behind each dataset too.

Open data portals have a hard balance to strike – between providing ‘raw’ datasets and disintermediating data, separating data from the analysis and presentation layers government often fixes on top – and becoming new intermediaries, giving citizens and developers the tools they need to effectively access data. Data portals take a range of approaches, and most are still a long way from striking the perfect balance. But the re-launched lays some important foundations for a continued focus on user needs, and making sure citizens get the data they need, and, in the future, access to all the tools and resources that can help them make sense of it, whether those tools come from government or not.

Supporting open data use through active engagement

I presented the five stars of open data engagement at the W3C Using Open Data: policy modeling, citizen empowerment, data journalism workshop in Brussels today.

You can read download position paper that introduces the 5-stars, and a number of other key open data engagement themes (PDF), or check out the slides below (annotated version; vanilla version is here).