Archive for July, 2008

It’s data, not documents, dummy

There’s been so much interesting, stimulating stuff going on recently that sometimes its difficult to know what to make of it all.

In the last few months I’ve been to a number of events such as GeeKyoto, Interesting08, and 2gether. All great in their own way and all have generated lots of thoughts in my head about innovating around my day job stuff.

The key message from all this for me has been: stop prevaricating, stop strategising. Just do something, lots of small things, and know that some of them will pay off (though not necessarily the ones you expect).

The Power of Information taskforce has also been busy, launching a competition to generate ideas about making better use of public information (wish my department had thought of that..). Now OPSI has created an ‘unlocking’ service for people to request the availability of government data in usable formats.

All this stuff, all these ideas, are great. Its not all ‘sexy’ social media (thank goodness), some of it is more fundamental than that.

I’ve been deliberating for a while about how we publish information online. On a daily basis we produce a fair number of documents in pdf format, not ideal but given the limited time (and various commitments that have been made) we have its often all we can do to get the information up on the website.

On Saturday I went along to Opentech08. Another inspiring event, but for very different reasons. Instead of being evangelist in approach it was very techie (I was well out of my depth there, chairing a session on openID – about which I know nothing). But there was a lot of talk about data feeds, mash ups etc. Luckily John Sheridan from OPSI gave me a quick five minute noddy guide to the whole area over lunch (I still don’t understand it, but I did smile a lot).

Anyway, from all that, and conversations I’ve been having with all sorts of people, its become clear to me that we could do better in how we make the information available – making it available as usable data rather than a document.

Changing what we already do is not easy, there are all sorts of constraints and barriers. But lets take the regular publication of statistical releases. We produce quite a few of these and, although we have started to make some data available in excel format to support the actual documents, its not ideal.

So I’m wondering, is there anyone who could help me do two things?:

  • First, how can we turn excel documents into useful and usable data feeds (RDF was mentioned to me, whatever that means…). Are there tools that can do this easily? What would I need? Can anyone set this up for me?
  • Second, how do I sell this to the powers that be? I understand conceptually that we should be doing it, but I don’t know how to articulate it well enough. It can’t just be about goodwill or the right thing to do – what is the ‘business’ benefit (remember it still costs us to do this stuff, so it needs to involve almost no extra work)?

Unlike the Power of Information taskforce, I don’t have big bags of money to dish out as a reward. But if you can help me, I promise you at least a pie and a pint, maybe more if I can get some money for development.

If you know how to explain it, or can help me do it, please let me know (email address is on the about me page if you don’t want to leave a comment here).