England & Wales

Open data and the relocalisation of the web


Jonathan’s speaking about local open data at tomorrow’s news:rewired event. The presentation will  identify those councils embracing open data, discuss the potential benefits of greater openness in local government and provide insight in to central government policies that are driving the ‘digital by default’ mentality. As we did a lot of thinking on this, I thought it would be worth blogging some of the ideas that didn’t make the final edit. Jonathan’s presentation will be uploaded tomorrow.

We’re currently seeing a ‘relocalisation’ of the web. Much of the internet’s momentum until now has been about the eradication of geography but new(ish) developments– hyperlocal and community websites, geo-location tagging and local, open data – are all about engaging with place and with where people are.

Much of this cultural change has been driven from the bottom-up but recently these grassroots movements have been met with political enthusiasm, and practical support, from the top.

The Localism Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, does just this – envisaging as a brave new world in which councils and communities work collaboratively and in co-operation to build better, cheaper and more personalised services.

But for these partnerships to bear fruit it means councils opening up the town hall, opening up the books, and being open to challenge.

So far we have seen small but significant steps towards more open governance. One of Secretary of State for Local Government Mr. Pickles first acts was to urge councils to publish data of all spending over £500 (The Guardian have collated all the released data on their datablog). This may have first provided ample material for journalists to report on council incompetence and fat cat salaries – but it has also helped local businesses club together to pitch for contracts and voluntary organisations to see where they can form new collaborations.

Mr. Pickles has also told town halls to open their doors to bloggers and allow online filming of public meetings. In councils like Kirklees, online viewing figures have already exceeded 14,000 –a significant figure when compared to how many people participate in most formal council activity.

Many of these recordings of council meetings are ending up on hyperlocal websites. These too are playing a valuable role in engaging residents in local democracy. The Networked Neighbourhoods research found that two-thirds of people active on hyperlocal websites or community forums ‘felt a little more or much more able to influence decisions locally’.

There are of course difficulties in all of this. Political motivations means some councils are less inclined than others to be open. Economic pressures means some authorities struggle to find the resource to release information when they are facing 26% in budget cuts. Technologically too there are problems as many officers don’t have the skills or understanding of how to release datasets in the correct formats for it to be remixed by others.

But, although still in their infancy, local government’s new web activites are helping revise the role played by citizens in local democracy. Open councils are giving communities better access to information and opportunity for the public to take better decisions and better shape the place they live in.