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Data, Mashups and APIs Event in Birmingham #dmapi

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Well, it looks like I’m going to break a record, two blog posts in one week, aren’t you lucky people? Well, this blog post, as the title suggests, is about last night’s data mashups and APIs event in Brum, hosted by the Birmingham Social Media Cafe peeps at the lovely and awesome and oh-mi-god-i-wish-i-worked-there Fazeley Studios.

The evening was a laid back affair, with noms and drinks laid on by The Guardian (who are pretty much leading the way in open data for newspapers) and consisted of talks by Dave Harte from Digital Birmingham, Michael Brunton-Spal from the Guardian, Matthew Somerville (sometime of MySociety and sometimes just his own darn self) and Paul Bradshaw, Senior Lecturer in Online Journalism at Birmingham City University.

The focus of the evening was really for the presenters to showcase what they were doing with open data, whether that’s sourcing and generating it themselves, or using data from other sources to do cool stuff.

The first speaker was Dave Harte from Digital Birmingham, which is a partnership initiative, set up by Birmingham City Council to encourage people in Birmingham to make use of digital technologies. The main focus of Dave’s presentation was to discuss the work Digital Birmingham have been doing to get more council data into the public domain.

It’s been a softly softly approach so far, very different from my JFDI approach at Lichfield, basically consisting of a two pronged approach – finding out what people’s concerns are (partly though the social media surgeries being run across the city), and then getting the data based on that, as well as introducing people who don’t do the ‘ooh shiny!’ routine to the concept of open data, partly through bevocal.org.uk.

He also talked about the barriers to open data, such as ‘data hugging’ (which Tim Berners Lee talks about in his TED talk – a must watch if you haven’t seen it already), as well as licensing issues (such as Ordnance Survey) which prevent data being used freely.

Dave’s presentation can be seen in full here

Next up was Michael Brunton-Spal (@mibgames) from the lovely sponsors of the day – The Guardian, who have a fantastic store of open data, sourced by journalists and then shared with the general public to mash up and use as they wish.

As well as the Data Store, Michael talked about the work they did with MPs expenses earlier in the year. The Daily Telegraph had the full, unredacted expenses data before the Guardian, and had leigions of interns rifling through it looking for good stories, so the Guardian had to find some way to find stories first.

The solution here was crowdsourcing, they published the data online and got interested people to sift through it for them. So far 205,924 pages of documents have been reviewed, and they’re only half way through. Interest has dwindled a little since the story first broke, but people are still going through it, looking for interesting titbits.

Michael also went into a bit more detail about the data store, which I mentioned earlier, showing off some of the great stuff that people have done with Guardian data (there’s a gallery on Flickr here) - my favourite one is the mashup of media scare stories plotted against the actual deaths the scare caused. There’s also lots of cool datasets and examples of what people have done on the Data blog.

Another good mashup was the MP’s travel expenses map, which plotted the amount of money claimed by an MP to their constituency, Mps which lived closer to Westminster, but claimed more can be seen very clearly and their claims questioned in more detail.

The coolest thing though in my opinion was the Guardian Open Platform, which in in closed beta at the moment, this allows anyone to use Guardian stories and features on their own site. There aren’t too many examples in the wild at the moment, but it’s certainly something to watch, especially for hyperlocal sites who want to add extra content to their own sites, but don’t have the resources.

The next speaker was Matthew Somerville (@dracos), who talked about some of the work he’s been doing on his own, as well as the work he’s done with MySociety.

The first thing he talked about was Scenic or Not which is basically a Hot or Not for views around the UK – you’re confronted with a randomly selected photo, which you then rate for its prettiness or otherwise. Now, I’ve got to admit, I was pretty clueless as to what use this would have when I first heard about it on the MySociety mailing list, but the use of this data literally made my jaw drop.

Once there was enough data gathered, it was then fed in to Mapumental, a system set up by MySociety with Channel 4. At the moment the system allows you to work out your daily commute, but more datasets will be added as time goes on. The video below can show you better than I can explain, so check it out:

At the moment, Mapumental is in private beta (it takes a hell of a lot of processing power to generate those maps!), but you can be put on the waiting list for an invite on the Mapumental site.

Matthew then went on to talk about TheyWorkForYou, which scrapes Hansard (the parliamentary record) to record what Mps are talking about in the house of commons, as well as other useful stuff. This allows you to keep tabs on what your local MP is talking about, as well as their voting record, their attendance etc etc (you can see an example for my MP – Mike O-Brien here).

It also turns out that TheyWorkForYou is a better resource than Hansard, a few years back, the team found out that a dead MP (Jim Marshall) had voted in two divisions despite being dead! They ended up having to contact Hansard to notify them of this mistake.

One of Matthew’s other projects is the UK postbox locator - this arose from a Freedom of Information request made by someone for the location of every postbox in the UK. The Royal Mail provided this, but claimed not to have the exact location, Matthew has used this data to put together a crowdsourcing tool. You enter the first part of your postcode, click ‘Go’, and then place the postboxes in the correct location. Over 20,000 postboxes are done so far (although B46 looks a bit shabby – sorry!) - it’s a great example of crowdsourcing in action.

Update: Matthew’s presentation is now available here.

Finally came Paul Bradshaw (@paulbradshaw), who talked very briefly about Help me Investigate – an online tool for people to collaborate in getting information from organisations. It’s still in private beta, but already it has gathered a load of useful data, from the cost of the Birmingham City Council website (staggeringly high – although it ain’t the web team’s fault) to where parking tickets are issued the most in Birmingham. This is pretty inspiring stuff, and along with What Do They Know (which is responsible for 10% of all Freedom of Information requests made) is a great way of getting public data out there, using the stick, rather than the carrot.

Overall, a great evening was had by all (despite the stifling heat!), great pre and post presentation chatter, good food, and most of all free booze! In the spirit of open data, I’ve put together a Google Spreadsheet of all the tweets hashtagged #dmapi for you to use as you wish – go at it!

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