GIS (Geographic Information System) is to open data as Microsoft Word is to a bunch of incohesive words and letters. Or at least, when you've been working with GIS for a bit, that's how it looks. A slightly distorted view of course, because GIS wasn't involved in the 15 minute dalliance with some data I danced the other night, but nevertheless, data and GIS is intrinsically linked for me and so I thought I'd try and explain why - with a diagram!
Look ma, no hands! Now, as regular readers will know, I'm not very good at diagrams. Or data visualisations or mash ups or whatever the cool and funky kids are calling them these days - I'm not a cool and funky kid either so I wouldn't know. But this is a pitiful attempt at an explanation, nevertheless because letters are boring and pictures are shiny.
Open data is the end of the story as I hope I've made clear here. Operations is the start. Operations is what generates all the data to go out into the open. Operations means childrens services, it means street scene or refuse collection and street cleansing with some park maintenance in there as well depending on what you're calling it this year, it's the actual day to day stuff like how many fly tips we collected or how many parking tickets we issued or how many library books we lent. It's our bread and butter, it's what we do, it paints a picture in numbers of the service we provide to everyone on a day to day basis.
The data from all that operational activity currently goes in one direction but eventually, one day, will go in two as shown here. At the moment, it goes into management information and in a lot of cases it gets fed, if appropriate and in most cases it is, into the GIS server and processed by our GIS software to make easy to understand visual representations of the data which our Managers can use to make informed management decisions quickly and easily, because the data is not 64,000 rows of ascii (raw letters), but instead thematic mapping, showing them where their hotspots and notspots are, where they need to focus more resource and where there was a problem 12 months ago but now isn't and so they can move resource. It's done more often than 12 monthly, but for the purpose of this, we'll call it 12 months.
The appropriateness of the information going into GIS software is generally whether it's spatial. Spatial means, relational, means does it have a latitude or longitude on it, does it have GPS data attached to it, will mapping it spatially make sense for the data to mean something. In a lot of cases, well actually, in most cases it does, from school catchment areas crossed with deprivation indices crossed with academic achievement levels to a thousand and one other 'mash ups' as they're now called.
Research and intelligence and policy actually have a two way relationship with GIS. They pull data out of the datasets parked there by ops and they crunch it, create 'mash ups' and provide it to Directors and Heads of Service to inform them. They do trend analysis and many other complicated and funky things. Policy take this crunched data too and they build our strategic advice on it. They tell people in words of one syllable (and yes sometimes more) where we were, where we are and where we will be if things continue as they are, but also where we will be if they do not. They don't hold crystal balls, they assure me, but I'm not so sure. GIS and much other non-spatial data is their bread and butter, I think (someone will correct me if I am wrong here, I'm sure).
The datasets which drive all this, will one day go straight onto data.gov.uk once signed off too. INSPIRE says they will. Please read the link, if you've got this far, you need to know about the existence of this Directive.
Which brings me to the other side of open data and the things in data.gov.uk which will sit next to the Operations generated stuff. The cost of satisying Freedom of Information requests was quoted at me by someone at a conference recently from their Authority and I will not post here what it was but it was enough to make my jaw drop. If we are transparent where it comes to information, if we are open, the assumption is that we will actually never receive FOI's ever again, because it will all be easily found, therefore cutting out the middlemen of the poor Administrators and Officers tasked with fulfilling these requests and instead leaving them to do their main job roles. But for the moment, perhaps it would be a nice interim policy for people to put the results of FOI's onto the web automatically, in the assumption that if one person wants to request the information, then perhaps a second will too? It's obviously of interest to someone, right?
And then there's spending data. Generated by Operations but kept by Finance. This is left to last, because Government have almost wrapped this one up. All spend over £500 will be published by local government in January 2011. All NHS PCT spend over £25,000 is already online.
Here ends the tour of data within local government. If you got this far, you know as much as I do, almost. Which in the interests of openness, is exactly the way I believe it should be.