Making a difference with data

Yesterday the Making a Difference With Data site launched at madwdata.org.uk .  This is an interesting initiative (disclaimer: I am co-editor of the local authority section with Ingrid Koehler) which aims to help practitioners, councillors and active citizens alike to publish and use data more effectively.  It covers the local authority (transparency and democracy), education, health and social care, housing, roads and transport and police – all the stuff that touches local government on a daily basis.

The creation of the website is both timely and relevant as we’re currently in the early stages of an unusual yet exciting coming together of top-down and bottom-up minds surrounding digital democracy. This article from the US explores this further.

In May 2010, the Prime Minister wrote to all cabinet members demanding “rapid progress” towards a more transparent government. From DCLG this has manifested itself, most noticeably, in the release of all council spending figures over £500 (which Chris Taggart is now attempting to organise and make useable to the rest of us)

As the civil service get more practice in releasing data, and the open-source developers get more experience and funding (Francis Maude MP believes open government data will create a £6 billion industry) we must expect and prepare for further transformations towards more open government.

What’s fuelling this is a mutual desire to move influence away from traditional centres and take decision making closer to the people. Openness has the high aspirations of cutting waste, improving procurement and nurturing a sense of empowerment that encourages communities to take better control of their local services.

This online migration of political material is creating new breeding grounds for debate and is feeding a growing expectation of councillors to engage with local residents through these new spaces. Research by Networked Neighbourhoods has demonstrated these geographically-close online spaces are powerful at strengthening community bonds and building genuine and sustainable social capital.

For councillors then, these are not just places to pick up voters. They are information services, focus groups and resources that build collective action. In order to sustain community leadership roles, elected members will not only need to know where to find these places, but be active participants in them, ready to tap in to this network of local knowledge.

As the LGiU’s recognition of Cllr James Barber as ‘Online Councillor of the Year’ demonstrates, where councillors have used online environments effectively the results, both online and offline, have been significant.

But what about more general social media? BwD Winter shows how Facebook can be used to keep communities informed about specific issues (i.e. heavy snow falls) and tweeters like @jamescousins, @cllrdaisybenson and @cllrTim all show how better community links can be forged through Twitter.

Just like in the ‘real world’, there is no one size fits all recipe for effective online engagement. Councillors will do best by mapping out their local online communities and use this to guide them when deciding what tools to use.

Looking further ahead, mobile is growing fast on the horizon. Since 2008, mobile data traffic has increased by 2000% – a strong sign that something big is afoot. For more on this – read the last two paragraphs of Jonathan Freedland’s article in today’s Guardian.

So what does all this show? From the bottom-up there is a latent demand to engage in political activity. Local government should assist this by further providing the digital ecosystem with the information it needs to flourish and start building the networks that will carry the Big Society forward.

The use of previously closed information to expose expenses scandals has more or less run its course, no it is time to start doing something interesting with data.