Bath: Hacked. Truly Putting Open Data in the Community’s Hands
Imagine a local government whose data is so open, the datastore is run by the community, instead of the municipality. That openness is exactly what is happening among the rolling hills and historic towns of Bath & North East Somerset (BANES).
Community-led Open Data Program
When Bath and North East Somerset Council wanted to launch an open data program, it recognized a shortfall of internal knowledge. So,the council sought the expertise and advice of its local software developer community.
“From the beginning, we’ve not taken a very top-down approach to open data,” admits Jon Poole, Research & Intelligence Manager at the Council. “But rather, we’ve looked to the community for leadership and management.”
In late 2013, the council reached out to Bath-area developers at a local coworking space. From those first conversations, a public-private collaboration, called Bath: Hacked, was born. Bath: Hacked includes both council and community members, a combination which has paid large dividends for the open data movement in BANES.
“The magic is we had two willing parties from the get go,” recalls local software developer and Bath: Hacked organizer, Richard Speigal. “The local authority clearly had a positive attitude about open data. And the developer community was committed and interested in making data available. Everyone was willing to get stuck in and get their hands dirty to make this happen.”
Both parties recognized having the council drive an open data program would be a more complicated and time-consuming route. By allowing the developer community to lead the creation of the open data program, the council could leverage the coders’ insight and speed.
The first efforts of Bath: Hacked yielded an open data hacking event which engaged more members of the developer community. Data for that event was, “just popped up onto a website as unstructured CSV files,” Poole admits, adding that this method worked in a pinch, but is not sustainable.
Speigal agrees, as the hacking event went on, it was clear links to files would not get the community very far. “Those files were fine for super skilled people, but it just wasn’t overall useful,” he recalls. “We weren’t going to get to a finished product that way. So, immediately after the event, we sat down to figure out how to build a real open data platform.”
Teaming Up With Socrata
After that initial event, Bath: Hacked met with the team from Socrata. “When Socrata showed us what they could do, our eyes just about popped,” recollects Speigal. “The datastore they’ve built for us has solved so many problems and gotten the community really excited by all the possibilities. If this process had been driven by council, it would have been much more complicated, but Socrata made everything go quickly and easily.”
Poole, further details the timeline, saying, “Socrata’s ability to offer something meaningful to the community in a short time was amazing. In March, we had nothing. We met Socrata in mid-June and by August 14th, the datastore was up and running. That turnaround time stirred positive interest and support from the council and helped us start thinking about what to do next with open data.”
Growing the Banes Open Data Community
Enthusiasm for the new platform led Bath: Hacked participants to ask for additional datasets to be liberated. The council has moved quickly to accommodate requests for the release of car parking availability, housing prices, crime statistics, historical maps, and other data the community has found useful.
A few months after the Socrata platform launched, Bath: Hacked received funding from the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to visualize data from air quality monitors around Bath. Data from the council’s system is openly available in the Bath: Hacked datastore and is being used by developers for a number of applications.
On their own time, a team of 10 to 15 volunteers are currently managing BANES’ open datastore. Every six weeks, the group has an open meeting at the local pub where anyone can request additional data be released, call for help on projects, or pitch new ideas for how to use BANES’ open data. Everyone is expected to share what they do and help one another.
To foster more cohesion and a welcoming environment, Bath: Hacked has instituted five guiding principles:
- Be useful.
- Be open. (This applies to data as well as knowledge and background of all participants.)
- Share knowledge.
- Champion privacy.
- Park politics. (As part of its efforts toward inclusion, Bath: Hacked says it’s important to keep agendas and political views outside the organization.)
What's Next for Bath: Hacked
“We are still pinching ourselves about the success of all this,” Speigal admits, “And we are trying to sort out our next best steps, because there’s so much we could do.”
For certain, Speigal and Poole say the future for Bath: Hacked includes formalization. The organization is forming a Community Interest Group, a social enterprise tax structure, which will allow the group cover, a bank account, funding, and the like.
Bath: Hacked is also working to broaden its community, extending beyond software developers to designers, artists, and other concerned and curious citizens of Bath and North East Somerset.
Perhaps the most challenging and interesting task in the organization’s future is helping other cities figure out how to duplicate Bath: Hacked’s success and model.
“We have been thinking and writing about community-led datastore management,” says Poole. “We believe it has real social use and value, so we are doing what we can to share what we’ve learned from our partnership and try to get other cities to replicate it.
“There is something special happening here,” he adds. “We’ve saved the government money [by building an open data platform at virtually no cost to the council], we helped the local community to take ownership of local problems, and we’ve proved that open data isn’t just a big city game.”
Poole concludes, “The proudest bit is that the council doesn’t have a datastore. The council contributes to it, but it is everyone’s. This data truly belongs to the citizens of Bath and North East Somerset.”
There is something special happening here. We’ve saved the government money (by building an open data platform at virtually no cost to the council), we helped the local community to take ownership of local problems, and we’ve proved that open data isn’t just a big city game.