In this, the first of two posts, I look back over eight years of open data in Scotland, showing where ambition and intent mostly didn’t deliver as we hoped.

In the next part I will look forward, examining how we should rectify things, engage the right people, build on current foundations, and how we all can be involved in making it work as we hoped it would all those years ago.

Let our story begin

“The moon was low down, and there was just the glimmer of the false dawn that comes about an hour before the real one.” – Rudyard Kipling, Plain Tales from the Hills, 1888

The story to-date of Open Data in Scotland is one of multiple false dawns. Are we at last about to witness a real sunrise after so much misplaced hope?

The trigger

At Data Lab‘s recent Innovation Week in Glasgow, I found myself among 115 other data science MSc students – some of the brightest and best in Scotland – working on seven different industry challenges. You can read more of how that went on my own blog. In this post I want to mention briefly one of the challenges,  and the subsequent conversations which it stirred in the room, then on social media and even in email correspondence, then use that to illustrate my false dawn analogy.

The Challenge

The Innovation Week challenge was a simple one compared to some others, and was composed of two questions: “how might we analyse planning applications in light of biodiversity?”, and, “how might we evaluate the cumulative impact of planning applications across the 32 Scottish Local Authorities?”

These are, on the face of it, fairly easily answered. To make it even simpler, as part of the preparation for the innovation week, Data Lab, Snook and others had done some of the leg work for us. This included identifying the NBN Atlas system as one which contained over 219 million sightings of wildlife species, which could be queried easily and which provided open access to its data.

That should have been the difficult part. The other part, getting current and planning application data from the Scottish Local Authorities should have been the easier task – but it was far from it. In fact, in the context of the time available to us, it was impossible as we could find not a single council, of the 32, offering its planning data as open data. You can read more of the particulars of that on my earlier blog posts, above.

This is about the general – not the specific, so, for now, let us set some context to this, and perhaps see how we got to be this point.

The first false dawn.

We start in August 2010, when I was working in Aberdeen City Council. I’d been reading quite a bit about open data, and following what a few enlightened individuals, such as Chris Taggart were doing. It seemed to me so obvious that open data could deliver so much socially and economically – even if no formal studies had by then been published. So, since it was a no-brainer, I arranged for us to publish the first open data in Scotland – at least from a Scottish City Council.

Another glimmer

The UK Coalition Government had, in 2010, put Open Data front and centre. They created http://data.gov.uk and mandated a transparency agenda for England and Wales which necessitated publishing Open Data for all LA transactions over £500.

At some point thereafter, in 2011-12 both Edinburgh and Glasgow councils started to produce some open data. Sally Kerr in Edinburgh became their champion – and began working with Ewan Klein in Edinburgh University to get things moving there. I can’t track the exact dates. If you can help me, please let me know and I will update this post.

Studies, and even mainstream press, were starting to highlight the benefits of open data. Now this was starting to feel like a movement!

Suffering from premature congratulation

In 2012 the Open Data Institute was founded by Nigel Shadbolt and Tim Berners-Lee, and from day one championed open data as a public good, stressing the need for effective governance models to protect it.

During 2012 and 2013 Aberdeen, Edinburgh and others started work with Nesta Scotland, run out of Dundee, by the inspirational Jackie McKenzie and her amazing team. They funded two collaborative programmes: Make It Local Scotland and Open Data Scotland.

The former had Aberdeen City Council using Linked Open Data (another leap forward) to create a citizen-driven alerts system for road travel disruption. This was built by Bill Roberts and his team at Swirrl – who have gone on to do more excellent work in this area.

Around mid 2013 Glasgow had received Technology Strategy Board funding for a future cities demonstrator was was recruiting people to work on its open data programme

Sh*t gets real

The second Nesta programme, Open Data Scotland , saw two cities – Aberdeen and Edinburgh – work with two rural councils, East Lothian and Clackmannanshire. Crucially, it linked us all with the Code For Europe movement, and we were able to see at first-hand the amazing work being done in Amsterdam, Helsinki, Barcelona, Berlin and elsewhere. It felt that we were part of something bigger, and unstoppable.

And it gets real-er

In late 2014 the Scottish Government appeared to suddenly ‘get’ open data. They wanted a strategy – so they pulled a bunch of us together two write one. The group included Sally from Edinburgh and me – and the document was published in March 2015.  I had pushed for it to have more teeth than it ended up having, and to commit to defined actions, putting an onus on departments and local government to deliver widely on this in a tight timescale.

It did include –
“To realise our vision and to meet the growing interest from users we encourage all organisations to have an Open Data publication plan in place and published on their website by December 2015. Organisations currently publishing data in a format which does not readily support re-use, should within their plan identify when the data will be made available in a more re-usable format. The ambition is for all data by 2017 to be published in a format of 3* or above.” I will come back to this later.

This MUST be it!

In 2016-2017 the Scottish Cities Alliance, supported by the European Regional Development Fund launched a programme: Scotland’s Eighth City – The Smart City. At its heart was data – and more specifically open data. The data project was to feature all seven of Scotland’s cities, working on four streams of work:

  • data standards
  • data platforms
  • data engagement and
  • Data analytics.

The perception was also at that time that the Scottish Government had taken its eye off the ball as regards open data. Little if anything had changed as a result of the 2015 strategy. By working together as 7 cities we could lead the way – and get the other 25 councils, and the Scottish Government themselves, not only to take notice, but also to work with us to put Open Data at the heart of Scottish public services.

The programme would run from Jan 2017 to Dec 2018. I was asked to lead it, which I was delighted to do – and remained involved in that way until I retired from Aberdeen City Council in June 2017.

At that point Aberdeen abandoned all commitment to open data and withdrew from the SCA programme. I have no first-hand knowledge of the SCA programme as it stands now.

Six False Dawns Later

So, after six false dawns what is the state of open data in Scotland: is it where we expected it to be? The short answer to that has be a resounding no.

Some of the developments which should have acted as beacons have been abandoned. The few open data portals we have are, with some newer exceptions, looking pretty neglected: data is incomplete or out of date. There is no national co-ordination of effort, no clear sets of guidance, no agreement on standards or terminologies, no technical co-ordination.

Activity, where it happens at all, is localised, and is more often than not grass-roots driven (which is not in itself a bad thing). In some cases local authorities are being shamed into reinstating their programmes by community groups.

The Scottish Government, with the exception of their SIMD Linked Data work, which was again built by Swirrl, and some statistical data, have produced shamefully little Open Data since their 2015 Strategy.

Despite a number of key players in the examples above still being around, in one role of another, and a growing body of evidence demonstrating ROI, there is strong evidence that Senior Managers, Elected Members and others don’t understand the socio-economic benefits that publishing open data can bring. This is particularly disturbing considering the shrinking budgets and the need to be more efficient and effective.

So, what now?

Given that we have witnessed these many false dawns, when will the real sunrise be? What will trigger that, and what can we each do to make it happen?

For that you will have to read our next instalment!

[Header image by Marc Marchal on Unsplash]

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