guide

So I've Opened Up Some Data, Now What?

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We’ve looked at how to make government information legally and technically reusable. The next step is to encourage others to make use of that data.

This section looks at additional things which can be done to promote data re-use.

Tell the world!

First and foremost, make sure that you promote the fact that you’ve embarked on a campaign to promote open data in your area of responsibility.

If you open up a bunch of datasets, it’s definitely worth spending a bit of time to make sure that people know (or at least can find out) that you’ve done so.

In addition to things like press releases, announcements on your website, and so on, you may consider:

  • Contacting prominent organisations or individuals who work/are interested in this area
  • Contacting relevant mailing lists or social networking groups
  • Directly contacting prospective users who you know may be interested in this data

Understanding your audience

Like all public communication, engaging with the data community needs to be targeted. Like all stakeholder groups, the right message can be wasted if it is directed to the wrong area.

Digital communities tend to be very willing to share new information, yet they very rapidly consume it. Write as if your messages will be skimmed over, rather than critically examined in-depth.

Members of the tech community are less likely than the general public to use MS Windows. This means that you should not save documents in MS Office formats which can be read offline. There are two resons for this:

  • The first is that those documents will be less accessible. Rather than the document you see on your screen, readers may see an imperfect copy from an alternative.
  • Secondly, your agency sends an implicit message that you are unwilling to take a step towards developers. Instead, you show that you are expecting the technology community to come to you.

Post your material on third-party sites

Many blogs have created a large readership in specialised topic areas. It may be worthwhile adding an article about your initiative on their site. These can be mutually beneficial. You receive more interest and they receive a free blog post in their topic area.

Making your communications more social-media friendly

It’s unrealistic to expect that officials should spend long periods of time engaging with social media. However, there are several things that you can do to make sure that your content can be easily shared between technical users. Some tips:

  • Provide unique pages for each piece of content

    When a message is shared with others, the recipient of the referral will be looking for the relevant content quickly.

  • Avoid making people download your press releases

    Press releases are fine. They are concise messages about a particular point. However, if you require people to download the content and for it to open outside of a web browser, then fewer people will read it. Search engines are less likely to index the content. People are less likely to click to download.

  • Consider using an Open license for your content

    Apart from providing certainty to people who wish to share your content that this is permissible, you send a message that your agency understands openness. This is bound to leave an impression far more significant to proponents of open data than any specific sentence in your press release.

Social media

It’s inefficient for cash-strapped agencies to spend hours on social media sites. The most significant way that your voice can be heard through these fora is by making sure that blog posts are easily shareable. That means, before reading the next section, make sure that you have read the last. With that in mind, here are a few suggestions:

  • Discussion fora

    Twitter has emerged as the platform of choice for disseminating information rapidly. Anything tagged with #opendata will be immediately seen by thousands.

    LinkedIn has a large selection of groups which are targeted towards open data.

    While Facebook is excellent for a general audience, it has not received a great deal of attention in the open data community.

  • Link aggregators

    Submit your content to the equivalent of newswires for geeks. Reddit and Hacker News are the two biggest in this arena at the moment. To a lesser extent, Slashdot and Digg are also useful tools in this area.

    These sites have a tendency to drive significant traffic to interesting material. They are also heavily focused on topic areas.

Getting folks in a room: Unconferences, Meetups and Barcamps

Face-to-face events can be a very effective way to encourage others to use your data. Reasons that you may consider putting on an event include:

  • Finding out more about prospective re-users
  • Finding out more about demand for different datasets
  • Finding out more about how people want to re-use your data
  • Enabling prospective re-users to find out more about what data you have
  • Enabling prospective users to meet each other (e.g. so they can collaborate)
  • Exposing your data to a wider audience (e.g. from blog posts or media coverage that the event may help to generate)

There are also lots of different ways of running events, and different types of events, depending on what aim you want to achieve. As well as more traditional conference models, which will include things like preprepared formal talks, presentations and demonstrations, there are also various kinds of participant driven events, where those who turn up may:

  • Guide or define the agenda for the event
  • Introduce themselves, talk about what they’re interested in and what they’re working on, on an ad hoc basis
  • Give impromptu micro-short presentations on something they are working on
  • Lead sessions on something they are interested in

There is plenty of documentation online about how to run these kinds of events, which you can find by searching for things like: ‘unconference’, ‘barcamp’, ‘meetup’, ‘speedgeek’, ‘lightning talk’, and so on. You may also find it worthwhile to contact people who have run these kinds of events in other countries, who will most likely be keen to help you out and to advise you on your event. It may be valuable to partner with another organisation (e.g. a civic society organisation, a news organisation or an educational institution) to broaden your base participants and to increase your exposure.

Making things! Hackdays, prizes and prototypes

The structure of these competitions is that a number of datasets are released and programmers then have a short time-frame -running from as little as 48 hours to a few weeks - to develop applications using the data. A prize is then awarded to the best application. Competitions have been held in a number of countries including the UK, the US, Norway, Australia, Spain, Denmark and Finland.

Examples for Competitions

Show us a better way was the first such competition in the world. It was initiated by the UK Government’s “The Power of Information Taskforce” headed by Cabinet Office Minister Tom Watson in March 2008. This competition asked “What would you create with public information?” and was open to programmers from around the world, with a tempting £80,000 prize for the five best applications.

Apps for Democracy, one of the first competitions in the United States, was launched in October 2008 by Vivek Kundra, at the time Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of the District of Columbia (DC) Government. Kundra had developed the groundbreaking DC data catalog, http://data.octo.dc.gov/, which included datasets such as real-time crime feeds, school test scores, and poverty indicators. It was at the time the most comprehensive local data catalog in the world. The challenge was to make it useful for citizens, visitors, businesses and government agencies of Washington, DC.

The creative solution was to create the Apps for Democracy contest. The strategy was to ask people to build applications using the data from the freshly launched data catalog. It included an online submission for applications, many small prizes rather than a few large ones, and several different categories as well as a “People’s Choice” prize. The competition was open for 30 days and cost the DC government $50,000. In return, a total of 47 iPhone, Facebook and web applications were developed with an estimated value in excess of $2,600,000 for the local economy.

The Abre Datos (Open Data) Challenge 2010. Held in Spain in April 2010, this contest invited developers to create open source applications making use of public data in just 48 hours. The competition had 29 teams of participants who developed applications that included a mobile phone programme for accessing traffic information in the Basque Country, and for accessing data on buses and bus stops in Madrid, which won the first and second prizes of €3,000 and €2,000 respectively.

Nettskap 2.0. In April 2010 the Norwegian Ministry for Government Administration held “Nettskap 2.0”. Norwegian developers – companies, public agencies or individuals – were challenged to come up with web-based project ideas in the areas of service development, efficient work processes, and increased democratic participation. The use of government data was explicitly encouraged. Though the application deadline was just a month later, on May 9, the Minister Rigmor Aasrud said the response was “overwhelming”. In total 137 applications were received, no less than 90 of which built on the re-use of government data. A total amount of NOK 2.5 million was distributed among the 17 winners; while the total amount applied for by the 137 applications was NOK 28.4 million.

Mashup Australia. The Australian Government 2.0 Taskforce invited citizens to show why open access to Australian government information would be positive for the country’s economy and social development. The contest ran from October 7th to November 13th 2009. The Taskforce released some datasets under an open license and in a range of reusable formats. The 82 applications that were entered into the contest are further evidence of the new and innovative applications which can result from releasing government data on open terms. Now GovHack runs in multiple locations across Australia and New Zealand each year.

Conferences, Barcamps, Hackdays

One of the more effective ways for Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) to demonstrate to governments the value of opening up their datasets is to show the multiple ways in which the information can be managed to achieve social and economic benefit. CSOs that promote re-use have been instrumental in countries where there have been advances in policy and law to ensure that datasets are both technically and legally open.

The typical activities which are undertaken as part of these initiatives normally include competitions, open government data conferences, “unconferences”, workshops and “hack days”. These activities are often organised by the user community with data that has already been published proactively or obtained using access to information requests. In other cases, civil society advocates have worked with progressive public officials to secure new release of datasets that can be used by programmers to create innovative applications.