Page last updated at 08:30 GMT, Tuesday, 13 October 2009 09:30 UK

Bringing the fight for data home

By Mark Ward
Technology reporter, BBC News

Pothole in road, BBC
Sites such as FixMyStreet aim to make it easier to report potholes

The data held by local councils has become the latest target of digital activists. They are keen to get at the information so citizens can put it to their own uses.

Before now the push to get at official data has concentrated on central government. Moves to open up that data took a big step forward in early October when a few web developers were invited to a trial of the site.

While that data could be all manner of official statistics, data from local councils is more prosaic. In some cases it is simply a list of councillors and the committees they sit on or it could be who to report potholes to.

"What we want is information that the local authority will collect naturally and use themselves but do not publish so other people can use it," said Adrian Short, creator of the Mash The State website.

The fight to get at that data could take time because there are so many councils and few share standards on structuring that data.

"There are 433 local authorities which are independent of each other," he said.

What civic-minded hackers want, he said, was the data put into machine readable formats so it can automatically be queried and put to work.

Mash The State, Openly Local, FixMyStreet, Planning Alerts and many others are all trying to get at that local data so more can be done with it, said Mr Short. Planning Alerts has been hit by a dispute which cut off its feed of postcode data and dented its accuracy.

Added Mr Short: "There is an awful lot of stuff on council websites that is not machine readable."

A case in point is RSS that Mash The State concentrates on. It catalogues which councils use RSS news feeds and tries to encourage its adoption.

Given that RSS is more than 10 years old, though only widely used for about half that time, you might be forgiven for thinking that it was widespread. It is not. Only 27% (118 out of 433) use one, according to Mash The State.

"For local councils," said Mr Short, "it's like RSS never happened."

Open moves

The emphasis on opening up local data has come about thanks to the seismic forces of international and national politics.

To begin with the Obama administration in the US has committed heavily to opening up official data and for many the information provided at remains the "gold standard".

In the UK, part of the impetus has come from the reverberations of the row over MPs' expenses.

"The expenses row has been tremendously important. It has made it political suicide to take a stance against openness," said Chris Taggart, the founder of the Openly Local site that aims to become a central repository of liberated local data.

Floating duck house, PA
The row over MPs' expenses has sped up plans to be more open

Openly Local has data on 85 councils, much of it scraped from the official website of each council. It has started making gadgets and other add-ons that make it easy for the less technical to consult and use the data.

Mr Taggart said that the Freedom of Information act has also contributed as had the average Briton's growing familiarity with the web.

That web savvy audience also knows, he said, a good website when they see it and was far more likely to challenge the bad to improve.

A case in point, he said, was a Freedom of Information request piped through the Help Me Investigate site that, as its names implies, brings people together to dig into subjects they care about.

The FOI request sought information from local authorities about parking fines and, by the by, asked which computer system they used to collate information about fines.

Some local authorities replied swiftly, others stonewalled and said it would take weeks and cost huge sums to dig out the data. This, despite the fact, that some of those delaying used the same system as those that found it straight away.

"People's patience on the internet is almost infinitesimally small," he said, "they have a real lack of patience with the bad stuff."

"The councils need to quickly understand we are in a very different environment and that transparency is not something to pay lip service to," he added.

Cost crunch

This perhaps explains the rising popularity of sites such as FixMyStreet and Planning Alerts that let citizens do more with the data on local council websites.

One campaign in Birmingham called BCC DIY has gone as far as to produce its own version of the Birmingham City Council site to show how it should be done.

"It's a short-sighted council that is a bit sniffy about these services," said John Fox, who helps to monitor the use of websites and social media for Socitm - the professional body for local government IT managers.

Open filing cabinet, Eyewire
Slowly local data is being opened up for hackers to play with

"They can see these services as a bit of a pain in the neck rather than embracing them," he said.

He added that those behind some of the follow-on services should consider the impact of what they were doing on local councils.

"One of the big issues for putting the services on the website is what happens to that information after it has been entered by you, me or a citizen," said Mr Fox.

For instance, he said, when it came to street repairs some councils had created a streamlined system that, once a pothole is reported, routes information electronically so that the only human intervention is a man pouring tar into the offending chasm.

By contrast, he said, in some councils a report filed via FixMyStreet may have to be forwarded via e-mail several times before it reaches the right department.

Despite this, he said, more and more councils were opening up. Kent County Council has set up the "Pic and Mix" website that allows anyone to take some of its data and play around with it.

Some maintained a presence on social sites, such as Facebook, to reach their citizens.

Salford, he said, regularly ran an online element to its annual debate about budgets to ensure people are involved with how their council tax is spent.

Chris Taggart, from Openly Local, said such dialogue was about to become much more important as the effects of the credit crunch made themselves felt.

"Tremendous cuts are going to have to be made," he said. "Where people are going to feel it is locally."

"Local councils know they need people's buy in, they need to involve people with that debate."

"It's about engaging the community," he said.

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