In its recent consultation document ‘Making Open Data Real’, the UK Government expresses high hopes for open data, heralding it as possibly “the most powerful lever of 21st century public policy”. Following several years of open data advocacy, activism and hack days, in the UK open data is moving towards the mainstream thanks to unanimous backing from the coalition government and the opposition.
The latest move in open data comes from Birmingham City Council, which today launched its ‘Civic Dashboard’. This is a web site publishing raw customer services data along with a slick visualisation, which was made possible by a grant that Digital Birmingham received as a result of winning a competition run by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA).
The Civic Dashboard draws its data from the customer service centre set up as part of the Council’s Business Transformation programme. An extract of data about all customer enquiries, whether by telephone, internet or email, is recorded by the customer relationship management system and fed into the Civic Dashboard in an aggregated (anonymised) form once per day. Where the data is geocoded, it can be presented on a map to show how many contacts originate from a particular ward or constituency. You can even see which channels the enquiries come through, which shows that the Council receives far more enquiries by telephone than through other channels.
This is an important step towards bridging the gap between eGovernment and ‘weGovernment’. Coming from the Council that was heavily criticised for spending £2.8m on its website as part of its eGovernment transformation, especially by Birmingham’s vocal social media users, opening up the data that is produced in the background shows what the new infrastructure can do beyond serving up static content. Doubtless there are many more datasets that exist as a result of the transformation programme, and if these are released in the future, perhaps Brummies will feel they got a better deal out of transformation than they first thought.
This itself is quite a paradox: such a handover of control to the citizen wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the huge transformation programme because IT is absolutely necessary for the collection of data in a reusable form.