What is an Open Data Project? (Part 1)

Written by: Mike Davies, West Yorkshire Combined Authority, 08/08/2014

Data is not a thing in itself, it always has context. Think of data as a parcel that has come through the post. Inside the parcel is ‘data’, but the parcel itself is also data – you’ve only got the data inside because it’s been created, packaged, and sent to you. So finding and understanding data is not just about locating a database on a server, or a file in a folder, it’s about understanding the people and the processes that give that data meaning and relevance.

Making data ‘open’ is about understanding its story; how it came to exist and what it represents, and then enabling other people to write the next chapter.

There’s a 3-piece jigsaw that businesses need to piece together when starting an open data initiative:

  1. Why do it?
  2. How do we do it?
  3. What to do with the data!

This 3-part post is designed to explore this puzzle, highlight some of the challenges and share solutions for overcoming the roadblocks. So let’s start at the beginning, why do it at all?

My 5 year old nephew has an intuitive understanding of data that is already perfectly in tune with the Information Age. He doesn’t see the objects in the Minecraft game as the complex but finite data structures that they actually are, he simply sees them as opportunities to make something exciting happen. It’s a wonderful thing to watch him play and a great analogy for what Open Data is all about – seeing beyond the data and exploring what can be done with it.

When we grow older, we lose some sense of the present moment, because we have so many memories and we are ever more conscious of the reducing future. So it’s understandable that the organisations we work in also have a similar sentimentality about the past and hopes for the future. It often takes something quietly disruptive to bring us back to the present moment, to make us think, what is the purpose, what is our relationship with the community in which we live, and the wider world?

Here’s some completely unsubstantiated facts for you: most organisations have more data than they know, and they use 1% of it. Of that 1%, only 10% is actually business-critical, classified, confidential data. The rest could probably be discarded, along with the processes that keep feeding it. I’d agree with the sentiment but as for discarding data, no! There is good data in your business, the fact that you might not be analysing or reporting on it is another thing altogether. An open data project will bring such things to the surface, it will highlight many opportunities for improving your internal processes in a way that no business-process driven project has ever managed to achieve. Why? Because open data is about realising potential, fostering new ideas and collaborations. So let’s first understand our data and think about how we might make better use of it.

But why share it at all? Because our data might be useful to other people who want to understand and improve the community. Improving the decision making and influence of the community is a good thing, no? We as individuals are part of this community, our colleagues, customers, suppliers and stakeholders are too. When a business (and its data) becomes separate from the people it is about and serves, it becomes dysfunctional. Sharing data represents more than what it is, it’s a statement of engagement, trust and inclusiveness. Get your head around that and you already have an open data project!

Now we have the why, we are on a journey to figure out how. The next part of this article will explore the wonderful world of project management and provide some examples of best practice to get your open data project up and running!

Blog post by Mike Davies (@dotlineform)

Mike is a Business Analyst at West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) which is the official government agency for transport across West Yorkshire. Get in touch with him on twitter @dotlineform

All views expressed in this article are Mike’s and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer WYCA.