This weekend I visited the Barcamp UK Govweb (#ukgc09, barcamp) in London to talk with people about government websites, data and see what the state of the art is in the UK on this topic. It was a very interesting meeting and I learned a lot from people who’ve been doing this for far longer than I have been.
One of the most interesting was the session on government data and the various initiatives and other activities that are being advocated to give us better and easier access to government data to make cooler stuff.
A lot of issues about current initiatives were discussed, about various Click-Use Licenses and about how open data should be financed.
One of the things that I found surprising is that most people present were firmly against a set of guidelines about how to open up your data.
I agree that a set of guidelines like these if done improperly can cause more pain than they solve and maybe they are not necessary in the UK with the OPSI in place. In the Netherlands we would like an open data process where everybody who has data and would like to open it up could go to and get advice what the best strategy is.
I want to prevent situations where when faced with the problem how to open up data, a government body contracts it out and we get a site with a bunch of PDFs in return. Guidelines can’t catch all cases, but we should be able to create something which prevents the worst from happening while simultaneously not tying us down when we try to make usable systems.
Everybody present in the government data session implicitly knows what should be done when opening up data but the problem is that this knowledge is tacit and in that form is useless to any government official interested in opening up their data. If you’re in that position and you’re willing to consider opening up your data in a ‘developer friendly’ format, it would be nice if we had more to offer to you than some vague ideas.
None of the rules in the guidelines should be definitive, they probably should be in the form of a series of questions with explanations so people are forced to consider stuff and by answering those questions come to a better end result.
As far as I am concerned the main rule should be to avoid unnecessary complexity when publishing data and consider stuff such as potential users and their needs, licensing, description, URL/availability and data format. I agree you cannot draft guidelines which guarantee a good outcome but I do know that change is necessary.
During the session a number of initiatives were named, maybe somebody else has a more definitive list:
I think the Hack The Government Day that Rewired State are planning is a very good idea. It’s been something of a year since we had our last govcamp in the Netherlands but I also see the need to combine the currently running initiatives into a more developer related event.