What has open council data ever done for us?

Explore England: an example of what you can do with the data. Image: Illustreets.

It’s been nearly a year since Eric Pickles, the UK’s Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government issued a policy statement  requesting that local councils open up their data to the public.  

Since then, progress has been slow – but there has been progress. A number of cities (Manchester, Leeds, Cambridge, London) have published open data sets. But without a common access point, or a declaration of available data like the Open Data Census in the US, it’s hard to know how many.

The big question now is: is transparency enough?

Boris Johnson thinks so. In October this year, London’s mayor, a keen advocate of municipal open data, launched London’s second data store. At the time, he said it would provide “a wealth of material that the world's brightest minds will be able to use to develop new insight and apps that can be used to solve the big city problems”. The inference is that if you open the data the developers will come.

Perhaps he is right: London’s first open data store gave rise to the increasingly popular Citymapper app that now covers 13 cities in Europe, the US and South America.

Once upon a time such complex problem solving would be the domain of the sort of people who broke the Enigma code. Today, though, there are businesses, organisations and local hacking groups of all sizes answering the call and pouring over these now freely available local data sets. Civic hacking nights or hackathons –lots of very clever techy people eating pizza and drinking sugar, while building local apps and data visualisation tools – were born in US cities such as San Francisco and Chicago. But they’re established in parts of the UK, too.

According to Tom Cheesewright, a technology futurologist for Book of the Future, this is inevitable given the nature of raw data. “Who other than engaged city-hacker types are going to make use of the data unless it is expressed in a form that is valuable?” he asks. “Without that the data is pretty exclusive, restricted to council managers and those with the technical knowledge or financial interest in doing something with it.”

There’s a disconnect here. The coalition is encouraging councils to be transparent and accountable and publish open data. And yet, the majority of residents, almost by definition, can’t spend their time pouring over these raw data sets.

“It absolutely is too technical,” says Richard Speigal, chair of independent community group Bath Hacked, whose goal is to translate raw data into useable local apps and web sites. Unlike its equivalents in many other regions, Bath Hacked actually owns the data store, and works closely with the Bath & Northeast Somerset authority. This relationship, argues Spiegal, that gives the local council a bit more perspective on what residents actually want from the data.

“We’ve kept our feet on the ground, worked hard to establish strong community links, used a data store that's open to non-developers and also include a learning track in our events,” he adds. “This has given rise to hugely popular, very simple local tools with tangible benefits: Bathonians can now find a parking spacea place to not get poisoned, see air quality throb or explore their city through the ages. A local startup has already increased sales with open data.”

It’s the sort of return Boris Johnson would be proud of: no one seems to be doing more than Bath Hacked. But where is the value? It costs money to install data stores, and pay staff to release and manage open data sets. Sometimes, the costs run into seven figures. So where’s the return on investment?

 “Quantifying the [return on] civic open data is inherently difficult,” says data expert and evangelist Owen Boswarva. “Personally I'm comfortable that taxpayers are getting value for money from open data, even if the evidence base is a bit amorphous. It's hard to isolate the effects of open data on growth and efficiency within a city economy, but that's equally true of many other policies and inputs.”

For the moment, frontline apps and visualisation services are acting as a shop window. “The area in which open data has most economic potential is location intelligence,” argues Boswarva. “Addressing, geolocation, maps and so on. Local authorities have numerous datasets of this type but are unable to release them as open data because they contain information derived from Ordnance Survey's detailed mapping and address datasets.”

The solution? “We need government to release those key national datasets as open data so that cities can in turn release the local datasets that derive from them.”

It’s worth mentioning a few examples. The London School Atlas is useful for parents but incomplete. While it maps schools, it says little about school attainment – which is, one assumes, what parents really want to know. A standard of living app analysing local areas for crime rates, house prices and amenities, such as illustreets’ Explore England, has obvious value, particularly if you are looking for a new place to live.

There is also live data on river levels, such as The Gauge Map from Shoothill: handy for knowing when to get out the sandbags. In the US there is even a dangerous dogs map in Austin Texas. The only limit, it seems, is imagination.

This whole process is forcing local authorities to change their mindsets – but whether it’ll make them more accountable is not exactly clear.

“It won't happen until local authorities have a mature open data policy, rich data platforms and an engaged community who are prepared to delve into the data,” says Speigal at Bath Hacked. “We concentrate on patiently building the component parts, confident that transparency will come. But to say it happens quickly would be lying. It’ll take years.”

 

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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