Tom Steinberg: how to open the data people actually want

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Tom Steinberg

Tom Steinberg, founder and director of mySociety

mySociety is a charitable enterprise that exists to make people more powerful by giving them access to democratic process – like being able to contact their MPs. WriteToThem allows you to find out who all your political representatives are. It needed data: postcodes, where postcodes are in Britain, and which political unit each geographic point is in. And you also need who has been elected – and the government has the first two bits, but it doesn’t have the last in an organised fashion, so they had to go to third parties.

Intially, they had to scrape – steal – some of the data, because it just wasn’t available publicly.

FixMyStreet – which allowed people to pinpoint local infrastructure issues – another site they had to steal data to get the product to work. They were committing crimes to create a charitable, public good organisation going. The parts of government that should have been facilitating this just weren’t working. And that’s how he became passionate about open data. And he’s ended up writing policy for both Labour and Collation governments about this.

What has he learnt?

Don’t expect to win arguments on economic grounds. Economic decisions are not made on evidence – they’re made on evidence and prejudice. And most open data research is new, and doesn’t have clear economic evidence yet. By all means, mention economics, but don’t expect it to convert the unconverted. Instead, show them tools that will improve their lives.

Don’t emphasise making things more accountable. People who are already busy trying to deal with cuts and politics, don’t want you to make their lives harder. Instead point out that open web tools -like Google – are often better at finding information than their internal tools are. That makes their lives better. If you can persuade them than a website will stop the phone ringing, with people asking for things, you’ll persuade them.

But what happens when you have someone ready to have a go? While the likes of hack days, and data stores are useful, it’s far more useful to be good at requests that are already coming through all sorts of channels. Having a hack day while freedom of information requests are building up is an issue. – makes it easier to submit freedom of information requests. It has 20 people accessing the data there for every person submitting. it gets many more times traffic than the US initiative – because it’s all data people want, rather than data people have chosen to release. You need to empower someone to go looking for these requests, and making sure they happen. They need to bribe/flatter/lunch the relevant people until the information emerges. They should be looking for ways of responding to FoI data requests that’s better than asked – if they want a spreadsheet, give them a feed that’s already up to date.

Councils need to get into the business of collaborating to build tools that help author the information the needs to come out in a structured way. MySociety is working with a system to help author that sort of structured data. It’s easier to author a page on a politician with their system than it is to write it on paper… That’s how easy it needs to be.

MySociety is now legit. He had to ask and lobby and campaign. If you can get a button on your site that allows people to ask what they want – and then you to go an away and provide it, then you’re there. If your city has a button that says “give me the data I need:” and you have an 8/10 chance of getting it after you press it – you’re an open data city.

freedom of informationgovernmentlocal governmentopen datapoliticiansPolitics

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.