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Inconvenience

I’ve written before about something that would really set a rocket under the opening up of data: the vigorous pursuit of the useful stuff.

When we’ve been given access to transport data, wonderful things have happened. When we get real-time feeds, useful services follow hot on their heels. Let’s make those infrastructural building blocks of services available for free, unfettered use: the maps, the postcodes, the electoral roll, your personal health records.

(Ok, I didn’t mean the latter two. Or did I? It gets complicated. Still writing that post…)

Here’s a vision:

Roll forward to a time when the first priority of any service owner within the public sector is not “how shall I display the accounting information about the costs of this service” (or indeed “how shall I obfuscate the accounting information..?”).

No. Instead, it is: WHERE is the service? WHEN is the service? WHAT is the service? HOW DO I USE the service? (And maybe even: WHAT DO PEOPLE THINK about the service?)

Those basic, factual jigsaw pieces that allow any service to be found, understood, described and interacted with. From a map of where things can be found, to always-up-to-date information about their condition, and a nice set of APIs with which others can build ways in.

The genius of this type of thinking being that many of the operational headaches of current service delivery simply fall away. They are no longer a concern for the service owner. “Our content management system can’t show the information quite like that.” “We haven’t got the staff to go building a mapping interface.” “We’re not quite sure how we’d slot all that into our website’s information architecture.”

Pouf. No more. Gone. The primary concern becomes: is the data that describes this service accurate (or accurate enough–with some canny thinking about how it might then be written to and corrected), and available (using a broad definition of availability which considers things like interoperability standards).

Well, Paul. Nice. But what a load of flowery language, you theoretical arm-waver. Can’t you give a more practical example?

Well, reader. Yes I can.

Loos.

That’s right. Public conveniences. A universal need. A universal presence. But where are they? When are they open? And what about their special features? Disabled access? Disabled parking? Baby-changing?

There’s actually a bit more to think about (once you start to think hard) than just location and description. But not a whole lot more. The wonderful Gail Knight has been banging this drum for a while, and has made some good progress, especially on things like the specification for data you’d need to have to make a useful loo finder service.

Why’s this really interesting? Really, really interesting? Because having got a good idea of the usefulness of the data [tick] and a description of what good data looks like [tick] we then find all the other little gems that stand between A Great Idea, and a Service That Ordinary People Can Easily Use.

Who collects the data? Where does it get put? Who updates it? Who’s responsible if its wrong? How do people know they can trust it? Can people make money from it? (I could go on…)

Bear in mind that any additional burden of work on a local authority (who have some duties around the provision of public loos) probably isn’t going to fly too high in the current climate of cuts. Bear in mind also that anyone else who does a whole load of work like this is probably going to want something in return. Bear in mind also that “having a sensible standard” and “having a standard that everyone agrees is sensible” are two different things. Oh, and I need hardly add that much of this data will not currently be held in nice, accessible, extractable formats. If, indeed, it exists at all.

Two characters usually step forward at this point.

The first is the Big Stick Wielder (“well, they should just make councils publish this stuff. Send them a strong letter from the PM saying that this is now mandatory. That’s the standard. Get on with it. It’s only dumping a file from a database to somewhere on the Internet, innit?”) BSW may get a bit vague after this about precisely where on the Internet, and may, after a bit of mumbling start talking about a national database, or “a portal”, or how Atos could probably knock one up for under a million… (and it’s usually at this point that some clever flipchart jockey will say “Why just loos? Let’s make a generic, EVERYTHING-finder! Let’s stretch out that scope until we’ve got something really unwieldy massive on our hands”.) We know how this song goes, don’t we?

The second is the Cuddly Crowd-Sourcer (“forget all that heavy top-down stuff, man. We have the tools. We have some data to start from. Let’s crack on and start building! Use a wiki. Get people involved. Make it all open and free.”) CCS’s turn to go a bit vague happens when pushed on things like: will this project ever move beyond a proof-of-concept? how do we get critical mass? does it need any marketing? can people charge for apps that reuse the data and add value to it? how do we choose the right tools?

Both have some good points, of course. And some shakier ones. That’s why this is a debate. If it were clear-cut, we’d have sorted it by now, and all be looking at apps that find useful stuff for us. And isn’t just a matter of WDTJ (Why don’t they just..?).

My suggestion? CCS is nearer the mark. Create a data collection tool which can take in and build on what already exists. Use Open Street Map as the destination for gathered data. Do get on with it.

Matthew Somerville’s excellent work to get an accurate data set of postbox locations and the Blue Plaque finder are obvious examples to draw inspiration from. Once in OSM, data can be got out again should the need arise. There will be a few wrinkles around the edges as app developers seek to make a return on what they build using the data. There may well be a case for publicly-funded development on top of the open data. But get the data there first. Make it a priority.

Because if, after years of trying to make real-world, practical, open, useful services based on data we continue as we are, with a pitiful selection of half-baked novelties and demonstrators of “what useful might look like, at some point in the indeterminate future” we’re badly letting ourselves down.

Basically, what I’m saying is: if we can’t get this right for something as well-defined and basic as loos, a lot of what we dream of in our hack-days and on our blogs about the potential of data will just go down the pan.

————

UPDATE:

OK, so it seems it already exists. Or at least a London version of it anyway. Don’t you love it when that happens? Would be good to see how it progresses, and what its business model looks like. I like the way that data descriptions have been used e.g. “Pseudo-public” for that class of loos which aren’t formally public conveniences, but can easily be accessed and used – e.g. those in libraries, and cooperative shops. The crowd-update function looks good too.

In a way, this also shows up another headache that arises when spontaneous services start to appear: there is only one set of loos in the real-world. But each representation of them in an app or online service must go through the same process of ensuring accuracy and extent of coverage. Distributed information is always tricky to manage. Should we hope that several competing services make it into production, with the market determining which succeeds? Will that be the one with the best data? Or is there scope for an underpinning data service that feeds them all? (But then we court the central, mega-project problems again…)

Answers on a postcard, please.

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6 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    Turning the usual way of doing things around, rather than releasing a lot of datasets, why not commission apps on the basis that they’re build on top of public data and APIs? At least that way you’ll know they’re useful and usable.

    Public orgs should be eating their own dogfood — using their own datastores as the canonical source for internal and external projects. If it doesn’t work for them it’s certainly not going to work for anyone else.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Amen to all of that. I took exactly that approach on a recent private sector data release/reuse programme that I worked on.

  3. Andy Mabbett says:

    Good stuff, Paul. If I had all the answers, I’d be too busy spending my money to comment on blogs ;-)

    Your point about OSM is a good one; look at the work done to geo-locate cycle shops, against a dataset provided by their trade body:

       http://shaunmcdonald.dev.openstreetmap.org/bike-shop-locator/

    It took me under an hour to do all those in Birmingham; yet apparently some parts of the country haven’t been touched. On the positive side, that tool is now being developed to work with any dataset listing a type of premises, which could include public toilets.

    Also, have you seen the new ‘Standard Open Data Format for Public Toilets’? (disclosure: I’m one of its authors):

       http://data.london.gov.uk/blog/new-standard-open-data-format-public-toilets ?
    Perhaps your post could be the subject of a session at the next (Local)GovCamp?

  4. Peter McClymont says:

    Map: http://www.northdevon.gov.uk/index/mapping.htm?BLPUC=20&ITEMO=D&GC=A
    Data: http://www.northdevon.gov.uk/index/lgcl_transport_and_streets/lgcl_road_and_pathway_maintenance/lgcl_public_conveniences.htm

    We’re working to integrate the above two and there is a CSV file available – not perfect, but a start.

    There is an on-the-ground issue with keeping information up to date. I’m sorry but we don’t have the resource or the technology to guarantee opening times 24/7. Our cleaners open and shut toilets. sometimes they need to fish people out of locked loos. If that’s the case, then a remote toilet may not open on time.

    If any Open Street Map dude wants to help validate toliet data, then ping us an email at webmaster@northdevon.gov.uk

  5. Andy Mabbett says:

    Good stuff, Paul. If I had all the answers, I’d be too busy spending my money to comment on blogs ;-)

    Your point about OSM is a good one; look at the work done to geo-locate cycle shops, against a dataset provided by their trade body:

    http://shaunmcdonald.dev.openstreetmap.org/bike-shop-locator/

    It took me under an hour to do all those in Birmingham; yet apparently some parts of the country haven’t been touched. On the positive side, that tool is now being developed to work with any dataset listing a type of premises, which could include public toilets.

    Also, have you seen the new ‘Standard Open Data Format for Public Toilets’? (disclosure: I’m one of its authors):

    http://data.london.gov.uk/blog/new-standard-open-data-format-public-toilets ?

    Perhaps your post could be the subject of a session at the next (Local)GovCamp?

  6. Kate Bentham says:

    Really interesting post Paul, I know from my work, in providing childcare and family services info it started locally, went to a Big Stick Wiedler (central gov) and then the Cuddly Crowd-sourcer (consortium). The feeling now seems to be focus on what we can do at a local level as it’s increasingly impossible to influance either regionally or nationally. This sounds like a cop out but five years since the project started and a lot of hard work later there’s lots of jaded #localgov people out there. Kate

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