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The power of information

I love freedom of information. Not so much the right for individuals to demand information from public authorities, important though that is (even though, in the council’s case, seems to be mainly used by people trying to get out of parking tickets and recruitment consultants building their contacts list). Instead I love seeing what happens when information is published, in an open format, so people can – well – do things with it. And, perhaps surprisingly, people are doing things with it.

What they do with it is up to them, but as a public body it is – really – their information to do with what they want. What is interesting is how the information is used creatively and to provide public services.

The example that I currently like is OpenlyLocal – which is compiling useful information about boroughs by taking data from various websites and publishing them in a single place. While may this is useful in and of itself, it is doing so in a way that can easily be used by other websites. So if you are running a locally based website, you can easily grab data from there about forthcoming meetings and add it in. (Shamefully, I’ve not done anything with it here, something I should rectify.)

You can even see what meetings I should be at in coming weeks. Does this benefit anyone? Possibly not on its own, but it does have the potential of increasing accountability.

The odd thing is how closed off data is in this country. It is a little hobby-horse of mine and something I gently push in the areas in which I have some say, but there are two problems.

The first is operational. As a council we are here to deliver services, not data, so often the data we are collecting is not in a format that is easily published.

The second is much more pernicious. There is an overwhelming presumption that data is private or copyright. To give an example, few are worse than the postcode, possibly the most important bit of data when it comes to anything geographical. Yet locked down to the extent it is useless.

So when I was keen to publish coverage of the borough by Neighbourhood Watch using postcodes it didn’t happen. We could only, for example, say SW11 5, which cover around one-sixth of the SW11 postcode area, has some Neighbourhood Watches, a piece of information so vague as to be useless.

However, to say that the 30 or so houses in SW11 5LG – the stretch of road I live – would breach privacy; even though we have street signs up and window stickers announcing to anyone who cares to look that it’s a watch area. In fact, one of the strengths of Neighbourhood Watch comes from publicising that it is a watch area.

Perhaps we are being over cautious in our interpretation of various privacy legislation, but it speaks volumes that the national culture around data protection means that we don’t publish what is fundamentally useful information. I’m going to take a wild guess that none of my neighbours will be complaining about this particular breach of privacy.

Data publication features quite a lot in the coalition agreement, so hopefully this will change. And I will continue to plug away where I see opportunities, but in the meantime we’re only scratching the surface of what sites like Openly Local, or even Streetbook can do.

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