The power of open data

Last Friday I was lucky enough to attend “Local by Social South West: Apps for Communities” a thought provoking event that explored how Apps and Widgets could be used to bring real benefits to citizens, broadening social and economic inclusion and helping the whole community benefit from the power of open data.

So firstly what is this open data that could be so powerful? About a year ago, the UK government was forward thinking enough to open up almost all non-personal data acquired for official purposes for free re-use. This meant that government was hopefully going to be more transparent, but also the dream was that citizens, communities and entrepreneurs might start finding some exciting uses for all this data that was now freely accessible. Before the event I was aware of this, but hadn’t really spent the time considering how I could use it or why I should care about it. As the speakers put forward their arguments for how the world can be improved by making this data useful to all in society I quickly re considered all of that. I found it quite refreshing to even start thinking about digital without coming at it from a marketing angle, using apps and the web for the good of society rather than just “how can we use this to sell something”. This made the day a bit of a call to arms for people like myself, who have digital expertise, to consider using our knowledge to make something that could benefit lives and communities, whilst at the same time still being potentially commercially successful.

Throughout the day we heard how Foursquare could be used to help improve social care, how crowd sourcing was helping Seattle’s local government , that Twitter was helping politicians communicate, how community driven action on the web cleared deep snow in the USA, that NHS Choices had started as a community action forum and then been taken on by the UK government, why sites like Simpl act as a Social Innovation marketplace, and how the “Awesometer” app had been a reaction against the “ASBOrometer” app, both of which utilise the data.gov.uk initiative to give you information about your location. Keynote speaker Emer Coleman (director of Digital Projects, Greater London Authority) stated that “developers are the new creatives”, presumably as an understanding of all the technical capabilities now on offer is now the key to coming up with something truly new and exciting, whilst making it beautifully designed is almost a secondary task.

The standout talk of the day for me was by Bristol based Overlay Media, who’ve been working on an initiative called “Hills are Evil”. The project aims to help make cities more accessible, via the creation of a dynamic map overlay that provides people with restricted mobility, cyclists, skateboarders, the elderly, and people pushing pushchairs, the ability to identify the most appropriate route between two places. The route will be determined based upon factors including gradients and surfaces. They even have a hashtag for people to rate how much a terrain will hurt them (#painscale) example: ‘like standing on a mousetrap’, for those who want the choice of going via a more direct route but need to know the pain it may cause them. They hope to crowd source data onto their map, so objects not currently found in open map data, such as cattle grids or a missing drop curb will be added by users, building up a detail picture of the accessible city. The “Hills are Evil” phone app will also launch soon, which will help further identify bad terrain and pinpoint it on the map (via GPS and a smartphone’s motion sensor); lots of clever thinking here and hopefully an app that will really change people’s lives.

Next, having been fuelled up with food for thought (and lunch), we had an hour to come up with some ideas of our own, a few of which were going to be taken further in a hack day at the Watershed the following day. Some great ideas followed, including an app to distribute surplus allotment produce, an app to help visitors enjoy the beach, the “Democracybot” to help government listen and understand, a volunteer sourcing app, and a car parking space finding app.

Thoughts I took away from the day that can apply to all projects: don’t forget about people in rural communities with lousy web connections, make things accessible to all and most of all, make them truly useful.

Thanks to Bristol City Council, Future Gov et al for putting on a truly inspiring event.

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