A step into the dark

Stuart Bolton, Engagement Manager
Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing

Since moving into our house eighteen months ago, my youngest daughter hasn’t ventured into the cellar. And who can blame her?  It is a dark, scary and altogether unknown place.  Who would have any good reason for going down there?

A similar fear of the unknown crept into my mind last month when I attended the Making a Difference with Data event, organised by Sheffield City Council Information Management and the Better With Data Society .The focus of the event was open data and provided an opportunity to find out what open data is, how it can be used and what could be done with it – and whether it really is a step into the dark!

At the event, some of the other attendees expressed a range of different anxieties and concerns about going into the new and unknown place known as open data – and some of these were captured in a short video  (which includes a brief, non-speaking appearance by me!).

What I really took away from the event was what came out of a workshop in the afternoon.  The session that had caught my eye was a discussion on the barriers to sharing open data, billed in the programme as a ‘round table exploration of the challenges, obstacles and barriers to local government professionals experience to releasing open data’.

I was interested to hear about the different views and experiences of people moving into this brave new world. I also wondered how similar, or different, the experiences of sharing open data would be to the experiences of sharing relevant information and data of individuals, which have been described by various professionals and organisations I have been working with over the last year.

So what did people have to say about their fears and hopes for this brave and often unknown new world of open data?  Some concerns were that the publishing of open data would only happen with the commitment of middle managers and that only with strong leadership and buy-in from senior management, could we ensure that data is published, used and available. But even with strong leadership in place, there can be blockers to publishing open data.

People spoke of their worries about being able to publish data in a timely manner, relaying stories of data from some central government departments taking three years to be released, or anecdotes of organisations taking five years to agree the intellectual property rights around data.  This was felt to result from organisational fears of the challenges they could face if they publish data, particularly when it may be exposing or highlighting poor performance results and ultimately, problems with the current services.

Finally there was the fear about the current, comfortable status quo – not the enduring rock band but the fact that for some organisations,  services  appear  to be working alright, which means that without  a concerted commitment and push, relevant  open data may not be published and available for use.

What stood out to me is that ultimately, with regards to publishing open data and sharing and using personal information, it should be about taking the time to recognise the fears that exist for the organisations and individuals involved, and then addressing these by working together.

But it also requires us all to be brave and prepared to take that first step into what can feel like a new, dark and unfamiliar territory – to be able to reach what we hope for, which is better services and outcomes for individuals. Rather like what my daughter had to do recently when, with her mind set firmly on the goal of getting an ice cream from the freezer in the cellar, she was able to summon up her courage and take that step into the dark.  Now if we can just get her to go up in to the attic, she will know the whole house!