Open Data Camp Hat-Trick (Day 1)

The Open Data campers start to gather (photo by Nigel Bishop  CC BY-NC 2.0)

The third Open Data Camp took place last weekend. I’m proud to claim the hat-trick of attending all three: the inaugural at Winchester in Feb 15, the second at Manchester in Oct 15, and this one at the Watershed, Bristol (great venue).

I’ve blogged before about how much I’ve enjoyed attending this type of event and OD Camp 3 did not disappoint.  There was an awful lot going on, with stacks of energy, enthusiasm, interest and intelligence in evidence.  The session grid lists 34 sessions and an @OwenBoswarva unkeynote.  There were skill swap opportunities and making of stuff (room temperature sensors publishing open data).  My  favourite ‘unsession’ was Ben Proctor trying his hand at telling stories with data: a must for fans of osprey love stories.

I started the first day sitting on my hands so as not to pitch for a session.  This was partly because I’d already pushed my ideas about knowledge management quite hard at previous events and partly because my Open Data & Supply Chain Management session had not gone down that well at OD Camp 2.  But it was mainly because I wanted to listen more – to get a better view of who was contributing and what themes were emerging.

The first session I attended was about engendering data literacy by nurturing an open data user/activist community of practice.  The session meandered a little, as can happen, and – like on an unplanned walk – we had the unexpected brought to our attention.  We enjoyed a philosophical diversion into the question of what data literacy means:  if it’s about understanding data and the context within which it is being used then isn’t that really a question of information literacy (if one defines ‘information’ as data in context)? We also touched on the problems of statistical illiteracy in the general population.

The session ended with a demonstration of the Data Campfire – a great idea by @natfoo and @wisewormm.  As a former Scout and Scout-leader, I found the image of a campfire, as a place to share and explore stories, instantly comprehensible.  As well as hosting stories about using data, the site allows users to discover and rate open data sources and also share data software/tools.  The over-riding sense of the importance of a community encompassing open-data providers, users and beneficiaries was strong.

It was then time for something a little more specific, with a session devoted to local open data.  I was interested to hear the sessions leads:  I’d met @MartinHowitt before, while the ‘Data Magpie’ persona  of @ldodds  had intrigued me for a while.  The discussion focussed on how to connect and motivate people in the collection, provision and exploitation of local open data.  The idea of organising meetings with local community service providers and activists to discuss their problems, before you organise a hack-day, seems obvious – once someone’s said it. I came away thinking there were four key things to consider: a clear purpose for the endeavour; a convincing WIIFM (what’s in it for me) message for individuals; making it easy to contribute data; making it just as easy for contributors to get data back out.

Having scaling down from national issues to the local, I was next offered a chance to go global with the session “Open data from space”.  This turned out to be a difficult topic to progress.  The starting point was ‘there’s a lot of open data available from satellites, but we (the open data community) don’t seem to be exploiting it’. We then ran through the reasons why that was the case with specialist knowledge and often specialist kit required.  My takeaway from this session was that a component of data literacy is understanding that some open data sets may be complicated and difficult to handle. Satellite data, gridded 4d numerical weather models, high-frequency sampled physical data streams all present difficulties in exploitation that a small CSV file does not.

Session Four brought a topic of particular interest to me – Linked Data.  Jen from Networked Planet had done a beginners’ tutorial on this topic at Open Data camp 2 and has also blogged four posts in a Linked data 101 series.  This session took things on a little further and gave @gklyne an opportunity to introduce Annalist – a linked data notebook.  This tool supports the collection, organization and sharing of structured and semi-structured data.  I look forward to exploring Annalist further – and will probably blog about it when I do.   In the midst of the discussion we had to pause and address the confusion between the term Linked Data as a specific concept in computing and the phrase linked data just as a description of two data sets that someone suggests are associated by causation or mere correlation. An important distinction.  I came away thinking that there is still a long way to go for Linked Data to fulfil its promise.

For my last session on Saturday I went to @alexrcoley‘s discussion on ‘Tips and tricks for finding a senior sponsor’.  This was a good exploration of DEFRA’s journey to the point of announcement by their SoS that within a year “…we will be making 8,000 datasets publicly available, in the biggest data giveaway that Britain has ever seen.”  Lots of good lessons about the art of stakeholder management, across semi-automonous agencies, progressive senior leaders and occasionally reluctant middle management. I recommend the session notes – they are well worth a read.

This post is turning out rather longer than I expected, so I’m going to publish ‘Day 1’ and then think about day 2.  As for the wrap-up, I think I’ll let @Drawnalism cover that.

Post #Camp Blogging

I think perhaps I’ve been doing it wrong.

UKGovCamp (#ukgc16) was my 6th civic/digital conference since I started #camping. And I seem to have fallen into this habit of coming back buzzing with ideas and new perspectives, determined to write a great blog post, fully referenced with links and embedded tweets. Just as soon as I have time. 

This happened after UKHealthCamp in Nov 15 – a brilliant event. Thanks again @puntofisso, @sheldonline, @thatdavidmiller and especially all the clinicians who added so much. I really enjoyed it and have lots more to say, but that sense I’ve got to ‘do it properly’ means that two months later it’s still not started.

Time to pivot. So this is a quick and dirty first impressions post. It’ll have some hooks to future blogs I want to write, but they’re not binding commitments.

The run-up was exciting. I actually sat in a lay-by just before noon on the day of the first batch release pressing refresh on EventBrite as the pips were on the radio. Which worked. The other significant run-up activity was making the case to get Dstl to sponsor #ukgc16. Which, after a much longer wait, also worked. 

The session pitching session felt really energised. Big queue straight away. Lots of great people and topics. I’d posted a submission to the new UK Digital Strategy a few days previously (calling for more effort to be put into support for civil servants so they can better support citizens) and it seemed it might make a good session topic. @pubstrat had been thinking some similar thoughts, but articulating them more eloquently, and we agreed to merge pitches and run a joint session – so that sorted out what I was doing for session three.

Before that I went to “Using and shaping networks for system change” led by @curiousc and “Procurement: good, bad and ugly and how it all actually works” led by @harrym and @ianmakgill. Both were great conversations, but very different in tone and target, so a good contrasting pair for the morning.  

After co-leading “Paper stops us thinking…” with Stefan I was feeling a bit drained and went in search of cold water and a break. That led me to the cloak room and a quiet, but really pleasant, chat with @ashroplad, who I’d not met before, and a couple of other good folk who I had. Great to take a break from the full-on sessions, even better to find a reflective conversation instead. The down side is that I missed @johnlsheridan talking on legislation, which felt  criminally negligent. I did get some Public Law chat in the pub later.

I ended the formal part of the day by joining @blangry’s review of the year session. Lots of interesting observations about the nature of people, bosses, departments and Departments (of State). I fear my discretion filter may have malfunctioned once or twice, but fortunately this was a ‘what’s said in the room stays in the room’ no notes session.

Drinks later and meeting a bunch of people in real life who’d previously only been Twitter avatars or podcast voices. Amongst these were @jukesie (who of course I met in a corridor), @janethughes, @blangry, @harrym, @reinikainen and @likeaword. Also met a bunch of new people.  Lots of people kind enough to take an interest in what happens in my next #OfTheGovernment chapter.

That’s it for now, except to say thanks to the #ukgc16 organisers: @baskers, @nickmhalliday, @puntofisso, @techforevil, @veewilliams and @jacatell – the unconference compère beyond compare. He can have the last word:

Helping Civil Servants help Citizens

Ed Vaizey MP, Minister for the Digital Economy, is leading the call for suggestions from public and industry on the UK’s Digital Strategy.  He sets out 4 key ingredients for success, the second of which, under the heading Transforming Government, states:

“…government services need to be as good as the best consumer services. My colleague Matt Hancock is bringing renewed energy to this agenda, driving a transformation to create what he calls a ‘smartphone state’. Renewing your passport should be as easy as buying a book online, so what more can we do to make sure interacting with government is as simple and seamless as possible?”

I support the aspiration to make interacting with government as simple and seamless as possible, but as a Civil Servant I also believe there is a strong case for making interaction within government equally slick. With an increasing demand for the Civil Service, and the wider public sector, to become more efficient and deliver its outputs with fewer staff  it is now time for a transformation of the machinery of interaction within government.

The government’s approach to digital transformation to date has, quite rightly, focussed on the large volume transactional services which offer substantive savings if they can be redesigned as digital services.  Such transformation is often described with reference to the way people interact with commercial companies – “Renewing your passport should be as easy as buying a book online”.  But the global impact of the web has not just changed the nature of our commercial activities, it has also changed how we manage our own information, how we consume entertainment, how we connect socially and how we organise sport, voluntary organisations and other clubs.

So if renewing your passport should be as easy as buying a book online, I reckon finding the notes I took from a work related conference two years ago should be as easy as finding my family photographs from my holidays the same year on Instagram.  Referring to the two-line note I got six months ago from the boss with some key guidance should be as easy as quoting the ID code of the tweet from my swimming coach that I was @mentioned in at the start of the season. Sharing an idea with 50 colleagues on an intranet should be as easy as writing this blog post. Contributing to a government policy best practice knowledge base should be as easy as editing Wikipedia.  And so on.

Such ideas are not new.  It’s nearly a decade since Andrew McAfee published Enterprise 2.0: The Dawn of Emergent Collaboration, and longer since DC Andrus wrote The Wiki and the Blog: Toward a Complex Adaptive Intelligence Community.  To give credit to the Government Digital Service they did promote, in July 2014, the need for Civil Servants to have the confidence to try some new digital tools and for us to use the digital skills from your personal life in the workplace.  Their guidance document Internet tools for civil servants: an introduction is a really useful listing / overview of 30+ tools and services.  But dig deeper, into the linked guidance from DH and MoJ, and the limitations with regard to security (even at Official), privacy and ‘keeping the official record’ start to emerge.

In general, these issues tend be pushed back onto the individual to resolve.  I am very much in favour of public servants being trusted to make professional judgements within the context of their work.  But if we want to drive a change towards more modern and efficient tools we should make it easy.  And at the moment, it’s too easy to carry on using a clunky combination of email, attached documents and corporate file shares rather than put the effort into assessing whether an online collaboration tool is fit for purpose – and then working out how to transfer the ‘final version’ into the official record.

There are some departments and agencies that have made significant progress in providing combinations of services and hosting which allow them to encourage staff use more readily.  I’ll declare an interest here – I have been heavily involved in my own organisation’s implementation of a semantic wiki and an enterprise social network.  But this approach has its own problems as it can end up being more difficult to share knowledge and information with other government colleagues.  And transfer of information to official systems of record remains an additional burden.

To tackle these problems I suggest a series of related actions need to be part of the future digital strategy for transforming government:

  • The guidance on internet tools should be regularly updated with significantly clearer explanations of the suitability of each toolset for different types of information and operating context (recognising for example that DCMS, BIS, DH and MOD probably have different threat profiles and risk appetites);
  • The Government Digital Service should undertake to provide a set of common digital tools on a cross government basis to enable easy collaboration within and between different elements of the public sector*;
  • An appropriate body (the Advisory Council on National Records and Archives?) should be tasked to consider how best to update the Lord Chancellor’s Code of Practice on the management of records issued under section 46 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.  This may, of course, result in recommendation to change primary legislation.

The last point deserves some explanation.  Public authorities are obliged to maintain records under a combination of statutes and codes including FOI 2000 and the Public Records Act 1958.  The latter, or course, was written in the era of cardboard folders containing typewritten letters filed on the right and handwritten minute sheets on the left.  More modern communications, such as email, are mentioned in the s46 code. But the fundamental ethos of the public record remains centred on electronic versions of documents within electronic versions of folders.  The public sector as a whole will not be able to embrace the benefits of the web’s third decade and beyond if it remains shackled to a records approach designed three decades before the web was invented.


*Civil Servants with long memories may recall the CivilMedia suite that the Cabinet Office used to sponsor.  CivilWiki, CivilTalk and CivilBlogs went when the COI was closed in Dec 2011.  The fourth member of the suite, CivilPages, survived and was rebadged as Collaborate which was available until Dec 2015 when TNA withdrew the service.


Update (22 Feb 16) – This post previously contained a final section relating to ontology.  I’ve removed this – it didn’t sit well with the main theme and requires some further thought.  It may appear in a future post.


Leaving, Moving, Staying

Just over 7 years ago I hung up my Royal Navy uniform and became a civil servant working for Dstl (the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory).  It’s been a challenging and hugely rewarding time.  I started in the geospatial intelligence team, working on a variety of research projects as technical lead or project manager (occasionally both).  Working with some great colleagues I was able to play the lead role in establishing MOD’s spatial data infrastructure – a technical coherence framework that formed the basis for a major investment in the Defence Geospatial Services programme.

An internal secondment led to a new job in the CIO’s team leading on the management and exploitation of knowledge and information.  Three roles in one, combining traditional IS direction, corporate change and research leadership. This was a great opportunity to use my influence to secure an Executive commitment to “shift the way that Dstl works” and adopt a programme of collaborative technology and behaviours. One of the cornerstones for this was an implementation of MediaWiki with the semantic extension which gave us a way to build a powerful internal encyclopaedic knowledge base.  

The other main component was the implementation of a social software platform to get folk collaborating across the boundaries of projects and departments, which over the years had become somewhat isolated silos.  I led a great team working on this, spanning our ICT contractor, immediate colleagues in IT, 3rd party software vendor and advocates across the organisation.  Working together I’m proud to say we pulled off what one key player described as a ‘wow project’. And in January this year we got some great recognition in the civil service TW3 (The Way We Work) awards.  We were Team runner-up in Technology category, with the judges citing our work as a contributory factor to Dstl’s win in Corporate Leadership.  It’s not often that you get the chance to instigate and then drive through a cultural shift like that at scale.

But I feel ready for a change and I’ve decided to leave Dstl at the end of March 2016.

I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do after that – but I’m fairly sure I’m not going to be seeking another full-time job straight away.  That’s mainly because we want to move up to London for a few years and I need some time to get our house ‘rental-ready’.  So I’m going to see if I can create a viable consultancy offering, possibly mixed with some short-term contract work.  If that goes well, I may try and do more of it (with maybe longer contracts) after the move.  If it doesn’t, I’ll try and get a regular job.

That covers leaving and moving.  But if I can, I’m also staying.

I’m staying #OfTheGovernment – part of the community of government revolutionaries that want to build services that support people far better than the Government can today. So in a direct response to Jason (@xcaplin) Caplin’s  phoenix moment blog post I’m declaring I will be ready for my next contract in-government, or as close as I can get, in Summer 2016.


On camping… and #camping

I’m in Shropshire for the first of two summer holidays camping with my wife.

I’ve been camping for longer than I care to remember. As a young boy with my parents, as a youth with scouts and as a young man when courting. In fact half our honeymoon was spent camping and we indoctrinated the children from an early age. Most of the last 20 years I’ve been under canvas at least once a year.

I’ve got used to life on a campsite. The opportunity to slow the pace of life, enjoy the sunshine (at least occasionally) and revisit simpler pleasures: reading a book, playing cards or even singing ridiculous songs around a campfire. It’s a familiar comfort zone, and I’m very much at ease in it.

It was only in January this year, however, that I started #camping, going to my first unconference (UKGovCamp15); where the participants set the agenda and the day starts with folk pitching their ideas for sessions.  I’d attended many staged and staid, commercially run, conferences with hundreds of people who always looked like they’d rather be somewhere else. This was different. 

Buzzing with energy and stacks of enthusiastic (mainly younger) folk, most of whom had given up a Saturday to be there,  this was not what I was used to. It was a little bewildering at first and not in my comfort zone at all. But when the pitching queue started to run thin before the slots were filled I screwed up courage and got on my feet. Suddenly I had a slot, a subject and a room. Fortunately when the time came around I also had some people who wanted to listen and join in the discussion. 

Over the day I got to hear lots of interesting people talk with passion about what they were doing and what they wanted to achieve. Coders, communicators and civil servants; united by a common interest in making Government better, all joining in with real conversations. Great fun.

Since then I’ve been to Open Data Camp UK and also Beyond the Smart City (not a #camp, but it felt like a close cousin). I’m looking forward to more in the autumn (maybe LocalGov Camp) and I can see it becoming a habit with plenty more to try next year.

I’ve enjoyed #camping. But now I’m ready for a break from work and the digital scene. 

Time to put up the tent.

Open Data and Supply Chain Management

I recently went to the extraordinarily engaging event that was the Beyond the Smart City Conference at the Met Office; organised by the three musketeers of ODI Devon – @mistergough (Simon Gough), @jargonautical (Lucy Knight) and @MartinHowitt (errr… Martin Howitt).

This event was ‘Open Data’ focussed, with a specifically rural theme, and developed over the day into a fascinating mix of technological, sociological, behavioural and community discussion. Early on, we were treated to a technological tour-de-force around the Met Office’s supercomputing capabilities and the seriously big amounts of data it produces by Charlie Ewen (CIO of the Met Office). In passing he made a comparison between the industrial economy supply chain (raw materials, suppliers, manufacturers, distributors, retailers and consumers) and the much shorter ‘digital supply chain’ (data providers, service/app providers and consumers).

Charlie’s point was about lower cost of entry, but he provided the nudge for me to articulate something that had been niggling me for some time: What does Supply Chain Management look like in a digital economy using open data? To unpack slightly: good industrial businesses will spend time building a relationship with their suppliers (and potential alternatives), carefully managing issues around quality, price, risk and availability. If they have a monopoly supplier the attention given to the relationship is even more important. But very often the providers of a service based on exploiting open data have little or no relationship with the data provider.

So I posed the question as to what happens when a business grows to rely on public sector open data and the provider subsequently proposes to discontinue the supply of that data.  @carlhaggerty, in the chair, described this as a ‘really interesting’ question and Lucy captured it thus:

Two people (sorry – didn’t catch your names) commented, the first stating that this was a risk you had to understand went with the opportunity to start a business with ‘free raw materials’. The second made a strange leap from data provider monopoly to vendor lock-in and offered adherence to open standards as the answer.

But for me this didn’t really address the question of whether any obligation is accepted by a public body that, when they start providing a (non-static) open data set, they have to continue to update it – arguably in the same form against the same schema.  When policy or funding changes, will the public body just change or withdraw the open data supply?  In conversation later with Carl Haggerty he suggested the issue becomes even more difficult if the reliance exists for creation of a social good, rather than economic value.

The Open Data Institute makes the assertion that “Good open data” – amongst other things – “has guaranteed availability and consistency over time, so that others can rely on it”.  A little more research unearthed a typically well thought through piece from @JeniT (Jeni Tennison, Technical Director at the ODI) on the nature of Open Data as a Public Good.  This explores a number of methods for maintenance, including Government funding and volunteer activity.

I think understanding how an open data supply is used is a vital factor in the decision on whether to maintain it. So perhaps a starting point for ‘Supplier Relationship Managment’ would be a standard mechanism for consumers of open data to (voluntarily) log their interests with the supplier?

Jeni’s article sets out some ways to manage the open data supply chain, but the discussion at #btsc15 suggests to me that Lucy’s other tweet is on the nail.

Driven – often to distraction

I’ve been thinking recently about what drives me.

Something must do, because those around me frequently comment on it. Sometimes favourably: “…an inordinate capacity for hard work.” Sometimes less so: “…if you don’t switch off you are going to burn yourself out.”

It would be easy to write lots of words about different motivations, their combined and shifting effect over time, but I think I’m going to try for a hole-in-one and go with ‘improvement’.

I want to help make things better. 

Sometimes that’s quite local – suggesting to the four colleagues I work with most closely we would be more effective if we met once a fortnight. Sometime it’s a bit selfish – seeking more technical leadership because I enjoy that more than project management. And sometimes it’s foolishly ambitious – trying to convince the folk in different government departments each trying to improve knowledge management across thousands of civil servants that they might do it better if they had a good network, some collaborative tools and developed a habit of helping each other.

I find it incredibly difficult to stand by and watch the sub-optimal if I think I can see a way to make it better. But that can be damaging. If I want to help improve knowledge management across government it’s no use getting distracted onto some minor problem in our ‘highly successful and universally popular’ desk sharing scheme.

Being driven is not necessarily a bad thing. But being driven to distraction is.