It’s all about YOU: Manchester as an Open Data city

There are plans afoot to declare Manchester as an Open Data city. At the Manchester Social Media Cafe last week I attended a presentation by Julian Tait, a founder of the Social Media Cafe, who talked to us about why this would be a good thing.

The Open Data initiative emerged as a result of Future Everything 2009, a celebration of the digital future in art, music and ideas. But what is an Open Data city? It is based upon the principle that data is the life blood of a city; it allows cities to operate, function, develop and respond, to be dymanic and to evolve. Huge datasets are generally held in places that are inaccessible to many of the populace; they are largely hidden. If data is opened up then applications of the data can be hugely expanded and the possibilities would be limitless.
There are currently moves by central government to open up datasets, to enable us to develop a greater awareness and understanding of society and of our environment. We now have and we can go there and download data (currently around 2000 datasets) and use the data as we want to. But for data to have meaning to people within a city there has to be something at a city level; at a scale that feels more relevant to people in an everyday context.
Open data may be (should be?) seen as a part of the democratic process. It brings transparency, and helps to hold government to account. There are examples of the move towards transparency – sites such as They Work For You , which allows us all to keep tabs on our MP, and MySociety. In the US, Columbia has an initiative known as Apps for Democracy, providing prizes for innovative apps as a way to engage the community in ‘digital democracy’.
They key here is that if data is thrown open it may be used for very surprising, unpredictable and valuable things: “The first edition of Apps for Democracy yielded 47 web, iPhone and Facebook apps in 30 days – a $2,300,000 value to the city at a cost of $50,000”.
Mapumental is a very new initiative where you can investigate areas of the UK, looking at house price indexes, public transport data, etc. If we have truly open data, we could really build on this idea. We might be able to work out the best places to live if we want a quiet area with certain local amenities, and need to be at work for a certain time but have certain restrains on travel. Defra has a noise map of England, but it is not open information – we can’t combine it with other information.
Julian felt that Open Data will only work if it benefits people in their everyday existence. This may be true on a city scale. On a national scale I think that people have to be more visionary. It may or may not have a discernable impact on everyday living, but it is very likely to facilitate research that will surely benefit us in the long term, be it medically, environmentally or economically.
The Open Data initiative is being sold on the idea of people becoming engaged, empowered and informed. But there are those that have their reservations. What will happen if we open up everything? Will complex issues be simplified? Is there a danger that transparent information will encourage people to draw simplistic inferences? come to the ‘wrong’ conclusions? Maybe we will lose the subtleties that can be found within datasets, maybe we will encourage mis-information? Maybe we will condemn areas of our cities to be ghettos? With so much information at our fingertips about where we should live, the ‘better areas’ might continue to benefit at the expense of other areas.
The key question is whether society is better off with the information or without the information. Certainly the UK Government is behind the initiative, and the recent ‘Smarter Government‘ (PDF) document made a commitment to the opening up of datasets. The Government believes it can save money by opening up data, which, of course, is going to be a strong incentive.
For archivists the whole move towards numerous channels of information, open data, mashing up, recombining, reusing, keeping data fluid and dynamic is something of a nightmare from a professional point of view. In addition, if we start to see the benefits of providing everyone with access to all data, enabling them to do new and exciting things with it, then might we change our perspective about appraisal and selection. Does this make it more imperative that we keep everything?
Image: B of the Bang, Manchester

UK Archives Discovery Network is born!

The National Archives Network of the UK (NAN) has been around for some time. It had a reasonably high profile around the turn of the century (that sounds weird!) when the cross-searching networks were being set up, but then in the following years its remit and purpose became less clear.
However, a great deal has been achieved over the past 10 years. The NAN projects and hubs have involved literally hundreds of archive repositories across the UK, ranging from public authorities through to the archives of small charities, and the result is that archives have had some resources to enable them to convert existing descriptions for contribution to the national projects, and that users have a number of very valuable cross-searching sites to use in order to facilitate discovery.
The vision was always to provide one gateway to search archives across the UK. Whilst this may still be a desirable vision, it may not be a realistic one, given the resources that it would involve and the issues of effective cross-searching of disparate descriptions. However, what we can do is to move towards opening up our data in ways that encourage cross-searching, sharing and working together to learn about how we can benefit users.
Over the past year, the NAN has been thinking about where it should be heading. At a recent meeting (August 2009), it was decided to change the name to the UK Archives Discovery Network, to reflect the UK-wide status of the network and to emphasise that we are about facilitating discovery for users.
The aims of the UKAD Network include working together in the best interests of archive users, surfacing descriptions, opening up data, sharing experiences and increasing links between repositories and networks. Whilst it may take some time for the Network to realise its remit, there are already benefits happening as a result of coming together, talking and sharing ideas and experiences.
I hope that the community continues down this path, because I think that it has become more important than ever to work together and really consider interoperability. Creating closed systems, however impressive they are in themselves, means continuing in a silo-based mentality, which is not truly responding to users’ expectations.
We have a social network site, which provides a fairly informal way of communicating:
There is also a JISC listserv: We encourage archivists to use this to raise any issues associated with cross-searching, data standards, use of technology and archive networks.
We hope that archivists will be keen to use the UKAD network as a means to foster connections and collaborate on projects. Here’s to the next 10 years – goodness only knows where we will have reached by then!
Image: Flickr cc. Jan Leenders

Where next for the National Archives Network…?

Joy and I went to a meeting last week at The National Archives to discuss the issues surrounding the National Archives Network, and the possible future directions that the archive community might take. We came away with our heads full of ideas and issues to take forward – so a job well done I think.

The National Archives Network as a concept really began after the 1998 seminal report by the National Council on Archives, ‘Archives On-line: The Establishment of a United Kingdom Archival Network‘ (PDF file). The vision was to create a single portal to enable people to search across UK archives. However, it is not really surprising that this never materialised given the resources and technical support necessary to make such a huge concept work. The landscape has changed since the report came out, and this solution seems to be less relevant nowadays. However, the concept of a network and the importance of collaboration and sharing data have continued to be very much on the agenda.

The meeting was initiated by Nick Kingsley and Amy Warner from TNA National Advisory Services. It included representatives from The Archives Hub, AIM25, SCAN, ANW, Genesis and Janus, as well as a number of other interested archivists from various organisations. The morning was dedicated to brief talks about the various strands of the network, and it quickly emerged that we had many things in common in terms of how we were working and the sorts of development ideas that we had, and therefore there would clearly be an advantage in sharing knowledge and experience and working together to enhance our services for the benefit of our users.

In the afternoon we formed into 3 groups to talk about name authority files, searching and sharing data and also hidden archives. A number of broad points came out of these break out groups and also the discussion that followed:

We need to ensure that our catalogues are searchable by Google (no surprises there) – it looks like some of us have tackled this more successfully than others, and obviously there are issues about databases that are not accessible to Google. It is important for contributors that services like the Hub and AIM25 are available via Google, and this provides an additional motivation for contributing to such union catalogues.

We really need to come together to think more carefully about name authority files – how these are created, who is responsible for them, how we can even start to think about reaching a situation where there is actually just one name authority file for each person!

It is important to progress on the basis of exposing our data so that it can be easily shared. This means working together on various options, including import/export options and Web Services that allow machine-to-machine access to the data. There are also issues here about the format of some of the catalogues. Some work has already taken place on exporting EAD data from DS CALM and AdLib, two major archive management systems. The Archives Hub and AIM25 have also been working together with the aim of enabling contributors to add the same description to both services.

We talked about other areas where sharing our experiences and understanding would be of great benefit, including Website design and how to present collection and multi-level finding aids online. We also recognised the importance of gathering together more information about our users – what they want, what they expect, what would be of benefit to them. In the end, this is one of the keys to producing a useful and rewarding service.

The meeting was very positive, and there are plans to take some of these issues forward through working groups as well as meeting again as a whole group, maybe sharing some of the specific projects that we have been involved with and collaborating on future initiatives.