In my time working in civic tech and Open Data the question of sustainability has haunted many projects and initiatives I’ve come across. This is understandable, as Open Data is relatively new to most organisations. Consistently publishing and maintaining a limited number of datasets requires an organisation to build data literacy, change institutional culture, put in place robust publishing processes, and account for new roles and responsibilities.

EU reporting on Open Data maturity tells us how far the public-sector has come in just a few years. Open Data readiness scored 72% in 2017 compared with 46% in 2015. These figures represent new policies, portals, datasets, apps and services.

Open Data maturity across Europe

Categorised scores from indicators measuring Open Data maturity across Europe, Source: European Data Portal

This means in the last few years a good number of organisations will have taken their first forays into, not just Open Data, but the worlds of open innovation and contemporary digital practice.

Even the more experienced of us are still figuring out best practice in terms of keeping Open Data programmes running into the medium and long term. This was very much the motivation behind the workshop I ran at the 2016 Mozilla Festival titled “Let’s Build Open Data Initiatives that Last”. This was a chance to get programme leaders together to discuss what we need to do beyond the technicalities of just publishing data.

Mozilla Festival

Mozilla Festival, London, 2016, Source: MozFest Flickr

Building on the Mozilla Fest event, my colleagues from ODI Aberdeen and I will be delivering a new workshop at this year’s Datafest. The themes will mostly be the same, but with a particular focus on engagement, usability, and culture. This change was driven by a need to refine the scope of the workshop, but also on reflection of what success means for Open Data.

5 Stars of Engagement

Excerpt from workshop slides, Source: Tim Davies

Engagement revealed itself to be a central concept as no Open Data programme is going to be successful without involving others. Take for example an international charity mandated by aid funding to increase transparency by publishing spending data. The data it publishes may meet the definition of ‘open’ by being publicly licensed and available, yet it’s too difficult for others to interpret. Indeed, such a situation creates risk that data is misinterpreted. Data published in the name of transparency and protecting reputation could cause confusion and pessimism.

Know your users

Avoiding such a situation requires a better understanding of data re-users. The skills, resources, and practices inside the charity, aren’t going to be the same outside of its offices. Taking account of this might look like reaching out to users and understanding where they may need support, perhaps in the form of guides or links to tools. Likewise, the charity could provide contact details along with datasets so users can get in touch and ask questions about them.

The best way to make these needs apparent is to treat Open Data like a common resource, rather than one organisation’s data that happens to be published openly. Adopting this view makes data a collaborative activity. As much as the data is there for others to use, it’s also there for others to build-on, improve, discuss, and/or correct. This is one of the reasons the Open Data Institute considers data a kind of infrastructure, a view now shared by the National Infrastructure Commission.

If you’d like to explore what engagement means for your project, do join us for the upcoming “Achieving Engagement and Impact with Open Data” workshop. The workshop will be run in Edinburgh and Aberdeen on the following dates:

Both are part of a wider programme of DataFest, including over 40 Fringe events taking place across the country. If you can’t make it but like what we’ve planned do get in touch, either with myself or my colleagues at ODI Node Aberdeen (aka Code The City).

Addendum:

I’m crowdsourcing a checklist of best practices for engagement with Open Data. Thoughts and contributions are welcome!