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January 7, 2011

Is crowdsourcing not that big a deal?

Gary Flood looks at local government use of data and what the benefits really are

By Cbr Rolling Blog

Two seemingly contradictory items out of the ConDem agenda to openness/transparency struck me this week: one, a plan to make councils publish data about their speed cameras – and a report that Local Government chief Eric Pickles is hopping mad about how little progress Town Halls are making in terms of publishing spending information.

Item one, then. The Department for Transport is reported to be serious about an idea that things like accident rates, vehicle speeds and the numbers of drivers prosecuted or offered training after offences are recorded on camera and so on should be public knowledge.

Indeed the Road Safety Minister has gone on record that as this is all our money being spent on the things, it’s only right that information about their effectiveness should be made public and that such openness would ‘show what impact cameras are having on accident and casualty rates and also how the police are dealing with offenders’. His office is marshalling stakeholders like the Police, local government and the Highways Agency to make all this live as early as April.

Item two. It transpires that more than half of English councils are yet to comply with Westminster demands they publish details of spending over £500, with only weeks to go until the final deadline. (As of this week, of 354 local authorities, only 144 have released the mandated information; they’ve had about six months to sort this.) Pickles has slammed them as ‘slowcoaches’ and is not amused.

The idea is that, to use the current orthodoxy, this would reveal all sorts of ‘waste’ and inefficiency – thus the implication that the ones who haven’t got this kind of material on to their URLs must have something to hide, and so forth. (It’s not just how much your council’s spent on new SANs or a new hat for the Lord Mayor, by the way – he wants salaries for senior execs, including one supposes the CIO, councillors’ expenses, minutes of meetings and data on service provision such as rubbish and recycling rates, etc.)

So on the one hand, central government is demanding yet more data is published for our benefit and on the other, it turns out councils are not doing this. So – bad councils, right?

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My problem with this isn’t political but procedural. Imagine if your CEO told you to publish details of how much everyone above junior grade and all spending, indeed in effect all the behaviour of your organisation, online, within a couple of months. Er… I think you’d struggle. Do you have all that in one place? How much of it would be really sensitive? Do you want your pay known to one and all? I suspect this is much harder to do than Pickles wants, or expects.

My next problem is with mashups. I recently moved to a new town and tried to use public dataset web sites and all that good citizen crowdsourcing stuff to work out if I live in a dodgy area. Result: about four sites that look good, are colour coded, seem to have data, that actually don’t deliver anything useful to me, or at least in a form I can use.

Show me a site that can do this – or a tool that can do this for me – and I’ll see the value in openness of all datasets; otherwise, I’ll go on feeling like the kid who got a new e-book reader for Xmas but who can’t really see what the point of thing is.

Prediction no 1 for 2011: crowdsourcing is going to turn into the CB radio of social networking. As in, fun for a few, just a waste of time for most. Unless speed camera transactions really, really are your thing…

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