When open data is discussed in the news, the story usually involves global politics – think Edward Snowden or Wikileaks. Awareness trickles down to public consciousness in the form of sensational spy stories, tales of defection and espionage and biopics starring Benedict Cumberbatch in a dodgy wig.

Beyond the superficial, open data remains the business of developers who create and share swathes of open-source data online. Data transparency allows other developers to understand and make use of it.

The system is inherently community minded, combining grand ‘power to the people’ potential and small-scale collaboration and creativity. The approach can be highly productive and incredibly useful: Mozilla Firefox, the Apache HTTP Server project, and the GIMP image editor are just a few examples of widely used, open-source creations.

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Hack attack: The first Hackathon took place in March

Bath: Hacked is one such initiative. Founded in 2013, the project aims to take things one step further, by using open data to help local government solve practical public concerns. We caught up with Richard, Chair of the organisation, to find out more.

Humble beginnings

“The idea for Bath: Hacked came out of a random conversation on a local forum called Digitality,” Richard tells us. “In October, somebody asked a question about getting hold of some local data: one thing led to another, a few people jumped on the thread and then, thankfully, we got somebody from the council involved. It started this whole conversation about using open data in Bath and North East Somerset (BANES) and how the council could make it easier for people to access local government data.”

“I think there are a lot of very ordinary things that can be done with council data that just makes people’s lives simpler by making information easily accessible.”

 

Key to their discussions, Richard found, was that the BANES council were honest about their lack of technical know-how. “They were very genuine but they were also pretty humble about it,” says Richard, “which I think is probably why we made progress. They really didn’t have a clue on how to do it, what to do, where to put it, who to tell, and that’s really where the idea of the first hack came about.”

This inaugural hackathon took place over the weekend of 22-23 March at The Guild Hub in Bath, with prizes awarded for the best projects. Winning the main competition was ‘Data Blitz’ by Mark Owen and Duncan Barclay, a tool for interacting with local geographical datasets. Another winner was ‘Team Discovery’, an interactive augmentation of the Bath residents’ discovery card, providing news and notifications of updates online.

Community spirit

So why does Richard think access to open data should be deemed as important for a local community? “That’s a huge question!” Richard answers, laughing. “Obviously there’s a lot of big ideas about transparency and democracy and empowering local people with information. To be honest, our experience is a lot more practical. I think there’s a lot of very ordinary things that can be done with council data that makes people’s lives simpler by making information easily accessible.”

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Mac hack attack: Participants collaborate and present their ideas to each other

One of the Hacked group’s biggest problems, Richard tells us, is getting the public to understand what the initiative is doing and how it can be useful. “Joe Public doesn’t really have a clue what we’re doing at the moment because they haven’t got something they can open up on a smartphone and use to make their lives easier.”

Richard gives the example of an app that would tell users the number of available parking spaces in an area, similar to the road signs for drivers entering a city. “That should be open data: my wife’s been asking me for it. ‘When can I have that on my phone?’ It’s that kind of thing – steering people to the right parking space. Then the wider community will get what we’re doing.”

“There are bigger issues with people being able to delve into local data to check council performance, mandatory services and anti-corruption stuff on expenses and whatnot, but to be honest that’s not really something that Hacked has touched on. I think the more grandiose stuff will come later. We’re looking for ways to get the public involved in open data rather than, you know, citizen journalism.”

Making progress

What are Bath: Hacked’s biggest successes to date? “I think getting the hack together was the major one. We had massively good feedback from the council offices. They were really pumped by what the guys had produced at the end of the weekend. I think (a) it made them less scared about the idea of open data, which is the biggest barrier for us, and (b) it’s opened up a lot of conversations with them about the solutions to problems and ways of working.

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All smiles: BANES Research Manager Jon Poole (right) with fellow hackers

“I think getting it going beyond March is pretty good. We did only expect it to be one hack and it’s snowballed, so I suppose the jury’s out on what happens next. I think that now we’ve got the council on our side, the next step is to get the general public on our side by delivering something that they can use every day”.

For Richard, any local, community-focussed engagement with open-source data is something to build on: “The fact is that with open data, there’s no roadmap. Every city in the land that’s trying…they’ve all tried it in different ways. Some have had success, some haven’t. I think we did right by getting developers involved right from the outset – before we got the data.

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Hack to the future: Hackers tinker away at their world-changing projects

“We’ve heard a lot of stories from other councils in England which have spent huge amounts of money on data stores and opening up data but haven’t actually talked to anybody who might use the data. And very often they’ve ended up with very expensive open data systems that nobody uses. So we’ve banged on constantly about driving it upwards from the grassroots and from the community, rather than using a top-down approach.”

Getting involved

Apart from an understanding and amenable council, we asked Richard what are the other advantages of being based in Bath? He explains: “We’ve got a massive community of really talented guys. Guys and girls. Not enough girls, actually – that’s a side issue. But yeah, I think we’ve had an easier time than other cities because we didn’t have any trouble attracting talented developers. Honestly, I’m not sure there’s many cities that would have had the same talent pool to draw on.”

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The key to success: Redesigning Bath by way of data

So how can people get involved? “Come along to bathhacked.org. First and foremost, join the meetup group,” says Richard. “Come along to a hack, or just start talking.

“If you need data, ask us: we’ve got channels into the council and we’re starting to get private sector organisations giving us data as well. We’ve got NextBike, the Boris bike scheme for Bath, giving us data now. If you want to get involved and build something beautiful that you think local people might use, then come along to one of the hacks on the meetup page.”

Users can access the group’s data store and take a look at the full set of photos from the first hack here. Many thanks to Richard for taking the time to speak to us. To keep up to date with Bath: Hacked happenings, you can follow them on Twitter or join them on their meetup group. And follow TechSPARK for the latest in South West tech shenanigans.

Chris Jordan