Today I was at a ‘quick and dirty’ local spending data workshop at Birmingham City Council’s newly refurbished offices on Lancaster Circus. There’ll be more detailed info to come on the Local Open Data Community (login required), but I just wanted to blog a few of my thoughts post the meeting.
There was a lot of talk about what other councils have done (such as Windsor and Maidenhead, Barnet, Islington etc), and it was agreed that there was a lot of difference in how the data was presented, Paul Davidson also talked about some of the work that the Local eGovernment Standards Body had done regarding getting spending data out there in a linked data format. There did seem to be a bit of resistance to the linked data approach, mainly because agreeing standards seems to be a long, drawn out process, which is counter to the JFDI approach of publishing local data.
However, while I am a fan of the possibilities of linked data, I also recognise that there are difficulties in both publishing the data and also working with it. For example, I think it’s unrealistic to expect every local authority to maintain a triple store to publish their spending data. As we learned from the local elections project, often local authorities don’t even have people who are competent in HTML, let alone RDF, SPARQL etc.
Therefore, I think the way forward is a centralised approach, with authorities publishing CSVs in a standard format on their website and some kind of system picking up these CSVs (say, on a monthly basis) and converting this data to a linked data format (as well as publishing in vanilla XML, JSON and CSV format).
The great thing about the linked data approach is it will mean that each item of spending can have its own URI - e.g.
(The first part of the URI would be the SNAC code for the authority, and then the second part of the URI would be the internal reference number)
As well as having a human-readable summary of the data (together with links to the actual data in RDF, XML, CSV and JSON), there would be a comments box (similar to Adrian Short’s fantastic Armchair Auditor), as well as the ability to ask any questions about an item of expenditure - the answers to these questions would then be automatically published next to the item of spend (hopefully helping to cut down on multiple FOI requests).
While this may be a bit of a pie in the sky idea, I do feel that there does need to be some kind of effort on the part of central government to help move this project along, as we’ve seen already (naming no names!) some authorities have got it drastically wrong, and while there is definitely mileage in the ‘just get it out there’ approach, I think if we’re going to end up with something really useful (for both members of the public and local authorities), we need to get the data in one place.