getting buy-in from senior management for open data
Explaining open data can be difficult. Not the meaning of open data, a short sentence can serve:
data made available to the public without any restrictions
But 'why' is tricky. Why invest time and money in it? What's in it for us? What's in it for me?
People have no hesitation in using open data. Library services wouldn't refuse book covers for catalogue sites, population data to analyse library usage, bibliographic data to aid in cataloging. When these are free it's great, and we take advantage of that. Yet the idea that library data could serve needs outside of the service isn't often considered. Even when it is, it still doesn't answer why. Services are naturally selfish: happy to use, but not share.
Yet libraries are not historically selfish about providing data and information. Few library managers would ask why they should be providing books and information to the public for free. We're aware of the value of the public having access to data and information; this is why we have public libraries.
That's likely a decent enough reason for an information professional to explore open data, but wouldn't cut it for a manager. Library services have fixed and costed functions like book lending, and computer use. For a manager there'll be little interest in adding to what libraries do on the grounds that they should do it, either ethically or professionally.
Speaking to people who are enthusiastic about open data, many have a moment at which it 'clicked'. That could be attending an event (like the #ODCamp unconference), it could be seeing an example of open data being put to public use, or frustration at a lack of data in certain areas. It seems like open data has not 'clicked' in UK public libraries, though there's growing awareness of issues arising from being left behind.
The Libraries Taskforce held data workshops at their Ambition events in 2016. Frustrations made clear were staff not having time to work on data, and not always having skills to analyse data. All this while knowing there's more in that data that could be used to inform the service. That's a problem that wouldn't just be solved by open data, but when people ask 'why?' to open data, a suitable response is to ask if data is currently used internally to it's potential.
Frustration of not having any data still isn't a good enough argument. Neither is jealousy at other countries being better, they're thriving in other ways as well. We can hope a wider audience would make more of data than libraries can, but it's not guaranteed. Maybe no-one will care. Maybe data will only be used in the same way as it is within library services: at times of crisis and consultation. And that will likely mean criticism of the authority.
So, how to persuade library managers that open data could be something worth spending time on?
The idea that open data is something that libraries should be doing, for professional integrity and social reasons, is great. But a waste of time for getting buy-in.
Make open data about service improvement. It's about seeing libraries benefit in the way other services have by embracing open. It's about events and community engagement. Use value stories, and examples of where open data is used in extraordinary ways. Point to large open data communities, and ask managers to imagine what could happen if those people suddenly found the library relevant in engaging with what they do.
CIPFA (Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountants) library data is still popular among managers, and collected annually by services. The investment in CIPFA is extraordinary. Not just in money, but the time spent contributing to a dataset for someone else to resell. It's an absurd situation that could be comical, if it weren't for the cost and destruction of library services. But it's not all bad. What do CIPFA do well, and why do managers love it?
It's standardised. There's often a happy, haphazard feel to open data. "What columns of data should we export? Don't worry about it! Shove it all out and we'll have a look." That's fine, but what do CIPFA provide? A clean Excel spreadsheet for everyone to fill out with exact fields, and definitions of each one. It may be stupidly manual, and involve ridiculous questions, and require converting your categories of things to theirs (an immediate loss of data), but it's 'easy' time, because everything has been laid out.
The closed nature of CIPFA data isn't compatible with open data priciples. But we can do more to ensure standards and schemas. As more services begin looking at open data we should share practice between our different systems, and start co-ordinating how to do certain exports. If we could get to a stage where the data could be compared between authorities (but was far better than CIPFA), then it wouldn't be outrageous to suggest to a manager the time spent on CIPFA should be spent in this way. Then promote new ways that data could be used in engagement with the public.
Library services are not seen within local government as being innovative. We know that's lack of investment, but it's the way it is. Councils are investing in bins that are more innovative than any core library service technology.
Open data is seen as innovation. It may not be, it could more easily be seen as a natural extension of library functions, but either way, libraries need to lead on it. Not wait to be the only ones left in local government not doing it. Leading on open data means:
In local government there are requirements for certain datasets to be made open, as a minimum. These are laid out as part of the Local Government Transparency Code 2015. The code goes further than specific datasets, and states:
the Government believes that in principle all data held and managed by local authorities should be made available to local people unless there are specific sensitivities (eg. protecting vulnerable people or commercial and operational considerations) to doing so. It encourages local authorities to see data as a valuable resource not only to themselves, but also their partners and local people.
This is not ambiguous, it's what services need to be doing. But policies shouldn't be a stick to beat people with, they're informative and formed through evidence. It's important for all members of a service to know about these policies. They can then take the policy as a starting point and formulate their own particular reasons for following it.
One of the benefits of open data is that with regularly published data, the public have a place to immediately pick up data about a service. This reduces Freedom of Information requests, which are often ad-hoc and have to be done differently for each particular request. It may also be possible to make each FOI request an open dataset, or refine your open data based upon requests.
Will this reduce workload? No, not really, at least not immmediately. But eventually, as people use that process instead of FOI. It also helps to appreciate that many of the fears of open data are around releasing data that is already available to the public via FOI.
It's also not bad for customer service excellence.
Managers aren't always good at making decisions. They manage and empower their staff to make their own decisions in their areas of expertise. So if you want to do it, and feel comfortable with the data you work on, get on with it and just say what you're doing.
This doesn't mean starting with things that could be controversial. What are your day-to-day reports? Top titles being lent? Push it out as open data, and tweet them. Summer Reading Challenge completion stats? Update them on your website and tell anyone interested (internal and external) to find them there. Just done a CIPFA return last month? Send it to info @ librarieshacked.org
Asking a manager to decide whether they want to do open data is just asking them a tricky question. Like asking if they want a biscuit or a cake. It's too difficult to answer, never ask something like that. Tell them you've baked a cake, shared it out, and they're welcome to have a slice.