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Reflections on Opening Doors open data event

On: 6th March 2012
Well the dust is only beginning to settle on the Opening Doors conference on Open Data last week, and we’re beginning to bring together all the learning from the day. 
We had a great opening session with Karl Wilding (Head of Research and Policy at NCVO) throwing down the gauntlet and asking why we should really be interested in open data at all – how can it help charities? Dan Sutch, Head of Development Research here at Nominet Trust, starting to answer that question by highlighting how developments in technology map on to an historical strength of charities in trying to improve how we address social challenges (including an example from 1854  http://understandinguncertainty.org/coxcombs). Next, Ian Carey of Barnsley Hospice, firmly picked up the gauntlet, showing how open data had been useful for him to gain a richer and more fruitful understanding of the demographics of the area in which he works, and ultimately improve the work of his organisation.  
The day gave a real practical sense of how open data can be useful for organisations, big and small, and equally unearthed an appetite among many to get involved in using it.  For me through the workshop sessions and discussion it became clear that the value of the work was in 2 key areas: Firstly where (open) data could help you gain a greater understanding of your work, and secondly where the tools around open data could save you time. 
Initially there’s open data being used as a tool to enrich the data that people already have and give them a better understanding of the community in which they work.  An example of this is Sandwell council of Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) database of all the organisations in their area.  While they may have addresses from being in contact with organisations, any extra information, such as which ward they are in and so on, would need to be manually found out.  This would take someone a lot of time and effort.  However on their open data day their data mechanic, Steven Flower, was able to use Google refine to find and import a rich stream of geographical information about each voluntary organisation using their postcode, meaning that SCVO suddenly have access to a lot more richer demographic information about each organisation and the communities they work in, without any extra effort.  This kind of extra information can clearly be useful in trying to get a more nuanced understanding of the community that SCVO serves.  
The second useful area was using the tools associated with Open Data to save time and effort for organisations. With the SCVO enriched database mentioned above, Steven Flower created an Exhibit meaning that the whole database could be visually seen on a map and visually categorised.  This means that staff at SCVO can very quickly understand the different types of work that member organisations are doing and where they are doing it. Nick from SCVO noted that whereas before he would have been counting down lines in a fiddly spreadsheet to find answers, they now have a quick and easy way to visualise and analyse information, saving significant time and effort.  In a different area, Adrian from Sussex Pathways, a service that supporters offenders to reintegrate back into society, told how learning to use Google docs on her data day had been a massive time saver.  In this case using a Google doc to share information among her team meant that they no longer had to deal with version control or emailing attachments which saved time.  So while bringing in big open data sets from the web was part of everyone’s data day experience.  Actually many also found that when you’re running an organisation with is operating way over capacity, the simple time saving aspects of using the tools associated with open data was as important as the data itself.
Our closing sessions allowed us time to really consider the learning from the workshop sessions, and for many in the room to ask ‘where next’? It became apparent that while open data may have been the term for the day, much of this was about organisations making best use of data generally, and this is an area in which organisations need more support. 
Karl Wilding (accompanied by a range of Star Wars Lego slides – which for anyone looking into the conference probably didn’t discourage the sense that there were a lot of geeks in the room) gave us a top list of areas to consider when attempting to take the use of open data into organisations, ranging from the processes and tools you may use through to the cultural shift that will support it to be effective. 
Will Perrin gave plenty of food for thought in his closing remarks and, amongst other things, really addressed the issue that for too long the charity and voluntary sector has been losing out by shying away from using technology to achieve their aims. He then moved on to showing examples from the work of the Indigo Trust about how effective the use of open data could be, including a map of where and how the organisation is working. 
So a rich and fruitful day all round.  Why not go to the http://opening-doors.posterous.com/ blog and read through reflection and tips from the day?  Or even better try out some of the ideas and post some of your thoughts on the issues by emailing opening-doors@posterous.com


Small Data

Big thanks to Kieron for his summary - it was a great day.

I was involved in the 'small data' workshops and very much the same themes were emerging, with some great practical suggestions from our resident expert Sharna Quirke - @interestedlocal - and expertly hosted by NCVO's David Kane - @kanedr. Have a look at this storify of the tweetage I did at the time which picks up some of Sharna's top tips...