Q&A: Chris Taggart, developer, OpenlyLocal

In the first of our speaker Q&As in the run up to news:rewired – the nouveau niche, we hear from Chris Taggart, founder and developer of OpenlyLocal, an online platform designed to open up local authority data.

OpenlyLocal now has in-depth information on over 140 councils across the UK, as well as basic information on all 434 authorities, and a hyperlocal site directory.

Chris will be taking part in our panel discussion on Building user-driven projects – Using your audience to produce better reporting and special features. Follow this link to see the full news:rewired agenda.

Click here to purchase tickets for news:rewired – the nouveau niche.

Tell us a bit about the OpenlyLocal project and its origins?

I started it because I wanted to do some research on Local Councils (specifically pension funds) and found there was virtually no open data available. I couldn’t get anyone else interested, so I decided to do it myself. I was also inspired by a small project in Manchester, MCC Work For You, which was trying to open up democratic data on Manchester City Council. I thought there could be a whole bunch of similar projects, and they’d need a common interface, and somewhere to tie all the info together. In the end, it didn’t work out quite like that and OpenlyLocal ended up doing nearly all the scraping itself.

How did you first get into working with local authority data?

I began about a year ago looking at the Greater London Authority, which turned out to be a bad choice, because it’s so unlike other councils. A week or two later I had another go with some other London councils, and gradually built a whole framework for scraping info and parsing it into data from local councils. The whole system is built using open source software (Ruby on Rails on Debian Linux). Later on I started incorporating data from the Office of National Statistics, the National Police Improvement Agency, Department of Communities & Local Government, Election Data, and hyperlocal news sites/blogs.

All the information on OpenlyLocal is open data – what are some of the pros and cons of this format?

The pros are easy: First, the purpose of OpenlyLocal is to even out some of the asymmetries of information — much of the information is available commercially, at a price, and in a way that is difficult to combine with other data. Making it open data opens it up to people and groups that wouldn’t otherwise have access to it, and, hopefully, disrupts the business models of those who rely upon the data being closed. It also supports the growing number of hyperlocal news and community sites that need access to this data (there are plugins and widgets for many platforms), and for them it was important that we allowed them to use it even if they were commercial sites.

Making the data open (more open, even than MySociety’s sites) has also allowed OpenlyLocal to grow much more quickly than it otherwise would have done — the hyperlocal directory that we launched a couple of months ago took less than a week to become bigger than the nearest (closed) competitor.

The cons are also easy: though the site costs a tiny amount to run, it brings in no money.

You taught yourself to program, do you see it as an essential skill for modern online journalists?

No, but understanding data should be, and programming should be a core skill of any decent-sized media operation, in the same way that a repro and printing would be for any print media of any size (my background is as a magazine journalist, editor, then later on publisher). As the web grows in size and importance it starts to model the real-world networks increasingly closely, and those networks show where the power lies. They are also essential for maintaining relevance, probably the key issue in determining commercial success in the future

Can you tell us a bit about your Open Election Data project?

At the moment there is no publicly accessible database of Local Election results, let alone one that’s open data that can be freely reused. We (i.e. open data geeks) also need to help Local Authorities to start to understand how to publish open data. This kills both those birds with one stone, and along the way allows councils to find out the internal problems in publishing such data (legacy systems, lousy CMSs, lack of skills, outsourced services, etc), and allows the community to to benchmark their willingness and effectiveness in doing so.

Trafford council, for example, took little more than a week to publish all their election results since 1998 as open, linked data. Efforts like this will not only persuade many more councils and their suppliers to do so (there are about 20 councils working on it at the moment), but also enable the passing of legislation requiring the publication of such data.

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