Month: September 2016

An open city is a better city

Approximate words from a talk at the Holyrood Connect: Data Forum in September 2016. Approximate as I tend to ad-lib in person as I see shocked, or occasionally, pleased faces in front of me. I also had a bad cold so ad-libbed even more than normal. The slides are also available online.

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Hi, I’m Peter. I do some stuff at the Open Data Institute (ODI). I’m here to talk about how an open city is a better city.

First some background and a couple of concepts: the data spectrum and data infrastructure. Then some current examples of data analytics in cities, and their limitations, followed by some UK examples of people building more open cities with more benefits. I’ll end up with some principles to help get you started and a bit about what’s coming in the future. Ok, background:


The ODI was founded four years ago by people like Tim Berners-Lee and Nigel Shadbolt. It is headquartered in the UK but its team works around the world. There are currently 29 nodes in 18 countries. In the UK that includes places like Aberdeen, Leeds, Belfast, Devon, Bristol and Cardiff.

The ODI’s mission is to connect, equip and inspire people around the world to innovate with data. We believe in knowledge for everyone. We help the public sector, third sector, academia and businesses to get more impact from data. Last week there were research fellows in the office from Madrid and Singapore debating and sharing ideas about geospatial data and privacy, crowdsourcing and smart cities. In the last few weeks the HQ team have been doing stuff in the UK, in Malaysia, New York, Mexico and Tanzania.


The ODI works across the data spectrum. Some of us worry about personal health records being “made open”. Some confuse commercial and personal data, or mix up “big data” with “open data”. To unpack data’s challenges and its benefits, we need to be precise about what these things mean. They should be clear and familiar to everyone, so we can all have informed conversations about how we use them, how they affect us and how we plan for the future. And it doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be simple. In one image. Whether big, medium or small, whether state, commercial or personal, the important thing about data is how it is licensed and who can use it. Closed so that it can only be used within one organisation, shared can only be used by some organisations (because of rules or price restrictions), or open data that can be used by anyone for any purpose.

The ODI works to improve data infrastructure. Data has become vital infrastructure over the last few years. It underpins transparency, accountability, public services, business innovation and civil society. Data such as statistics, maps and real-time sensor readings help us to make decisions, build services and gain insight. Data infrastructure will only become more vital as our populations grow and our economies and societies become ever more reliant on getting value from data.

I often hear people say that data is the new fuel or that it’s oil for the digital revolution. Daft analogies. Data doesn’t get burnt up when we use it, we can use it again and again and again. It doesn’t get extracted from the ground: unless it’s geological data. The analogy we use for data infrastructure is roads. Roads help us navigate to a location. Data helps us make a decision. Roads have signs and maps to tell us how to use them. So does data, well hopefully.

Lots of cities are improving data infrastructure

Now back to the theme of cities and data. Cities and local authorities around the world are using and improving data infrastructure. It may not feel like it sometimes, but they are.

Many public sector organisations are developing skills and creating more impact by using their own data to make better decisions. Whether it be where to spend money on social care, what time to pick up the bins or how to design a local authority website so that it’s easy to use. In each case the organisation is having to learn how to gather data, analyse it and use it to make a better decision.

These are all activities in the closed part of the data spectrum.

Half-spectrum doesn’t give you all the value.

We’re also seeing more and more public sector organisations work together and share data to make better decisions. Down in Manchester local authorities are sharing data to help vulnerable children. In London local authorities are sharing and analysing data to look for unlicensed houses of multiple occupancy, they can be unsafe places to live. This type of big data analytics takes inspiration from places like Chicago which has been using data about graffiti tags to tackle gang violence, or New York City and Amsterdam which have analysed data from across the city to work out what characteristics were the best indicators for fire and help prevent it.

These activities take place in the closed and shared part of the data spectrum.

All the data and all the open

But let’s go back a bit. When I talked about data infrastructure I said it underpins transparency, accountability, public services, business innovation and civil society.

All of the previous examples are about public services. The rest of the benefits of data infrastructure missing. There’s some business innovation — for example from data analytics companies selling into the public sector — but only a portion.

Why is that ? Let’s look again at the full data spectrum. We’re missing public data and open data.

At the ODI we say that cities, their businesses and their citizens get most impact from a data infrastructure that is as open as possible while respecting privacy. There’s lots of research showing this and there’s also practical examples. I’ll cover some in a bit.

It’s true you know.

The reasons that open data infrastructure creates most impact is due to the qualities of data. For example, it benefits from network effects. Data becomes more useful and creates more value as more people use and maintain it.

When you work openly and use as much open data as possible then more people can work together to solve problems, make decisions, find insights and build services. You benefit from network effects. You can build a better city. One that benefits everyone.

This is particularly true if you combine all the data — closed, shared and open — with all the open. Open culture. Open source. Open government. Open standards. Open innovation. Etcetera.

There’s lots of examples, here are some

Let’s take a few examples showing some different aspects.

First, Bath and Strava, the cycling app. Strava users cycling around Bath can choose to share their closed personal data with a community group called Bath:Hacked. That group preserve privacy, analyse the data and are working with the council to use it to improve cycling routes. Interestingly there’s anecdotal evidence that people are cycling and using the app more because they can see that the data they collect benefits the city and themselves. Win win. Meanwhile Bath:Hacked are sharing what they’re doing online.

As a coffee drinker I am unsurprised by the decline in tea-drinking in Britain (source: Defra, ODI and Kiln)

There are two reasons for that. First, by opening up the knowledge for everyone other people can use it and other people can tell Bath how they are using it. People can learn with each other. Second, openness about how organisations secure and manage personal data builds trust. It can improve quality too. take Defra who recently did a privacy impact assessment in the open, with people outside the organisation commenting, before releasing diaries showing the diet habits of 150,000 households. They worked out by debating with their community that some of this data which would otherwise have all been kept closed could be made open for anyone to use. Transparency and open debate about personal data can make things better.

Another example, I was talking to someone from Devon council last week. They published a map of places where people could get help. Unfortunately the map was wrong. Because both the data and the source code were open a friendly person could fix it for them and send them the corrected version. Problem fixed within a few hours. Thank you friendly person.

Another. In places like Manchester and Leeds people from the public sector, private sector and civil society are working to build a low-cost open infrastructure for the internet of things. They’re helping each other using each other’s skills and experience as needed. On the infrastructure people will be able to build and deploy sensors to monitor air quality or the height of a river and anyone will be able to use the data to decide whether to place a new school near a road or a set of new houses by a river, whether to buy a house or whether to evacuate a house as the waters are rising…

These things cost money but they don’t need to cost the big money that so many projects with technology do. The cost of software, hardware and hence data is falling dramatically. You can now build an air quality sensor for less than £100, you can get a LIDAR sensor — a device that can measure distance using lasers — that used to cost tens of thousands of pounds for a few hundred pounds. (That’s part of the reason we’re hearing about automated cars so much. They need those sensors too). As much as possible of the data from that infrastructure will be open, that’s the culture of the community. That will allow other people to use it too for only the cost of allowing people to use the data that has already been collected. The infrastructure is designed for open.

And to continue the theme of culture. In Aberdeen the team in the council run hackathons open to anyone and learn innovative techniques from civil society businesses to help the council deliver other services. Those hackathons will also help with the Scottish government’s digital skills initiative that I was reading about on the train yesterday. An initiative that could also be supported by the new work that the Open Government Partnership are starting with the Scottish government.

Back to Leeds. The city council has funded ODI Leeds to act as a neutral space outside the council that can be used to convene businesses, academia, civil society and the public sector to understand and define problems; share data to explore ideas and then open the data as much as possible to allow people to build solutions. Those solutions could be built by new startups or established businesses. Arup, the global construction firm, use similar open innovation techniques working with startups to help improve how they build stuff. It’s like the data analytics examples we saw earlier but it uses the full spectrum.

In each of these cases we can see people from multiple sectors sector working together to solve common problems as openly as possible. In the process new businesses are built, there’s transparency and accountability, civil society are engaged, and there’s better public services too. All of the things our data infrastructure supports.

There’s countless more examples across the world for those who look.

How do I build open data infrastructure?

But, I often hear people ask, how do I do this?

As you may have realised from these examples data infrastructure is not only about data. Data infrastructure includes datasets; the technology, training and processes that makes them useable; policies and regulation such as those for data sharing and protection; and the organisations and people that collect, maintain and use data. We can all see that the datasets may be from anywhere in the data spectrum. But the more open the data infrastructure, the more value it will create as more people can use it.

Principles to help people build better data infrastructure.

Based on the ODI’s own work and research on what works and what doesn’t at city, national and globally we’ve published some principles to help other people build better data infrastructure.

The first and last principles are key. Design for open and encourage open innovation.

Based on our experience we believe we need a number of things to work together to create the space for open innovation to happen: strategy, policy, training, technology, research, a tech community, and engagement. With that engagement you’re looking to build a receptive internal customer (for example a councillor in a city), a responsive tech community and an engaged civic community willing to work with you. With open innovation the best answers can come from anywhere. You just need to get started and have the courage to try.

Anyway, I hope that was interesting, and useful, but before I go I want to leave with you another thought as to why getting to grips with open and data is so important.

The web of data is coming.

Over the last 25 years we’ve all been building the web of documents. Billions of webpages linked together. It’s fabulous. But the billions of people, sensors and services that are connected to the web and the internet produce, publish and use data. A web of data is now evolving that sits alongside and behind the web of documents.

That might seem like a challenging thing and something we can’t control but I would encourage everyone to see it as an opportunity. By getting to grips with your data infrastructure and making it as open as possible you will be positioning your city and the businesses and citizens that live in it to thrive in that future. That sounds like a pretty important mission to be cracking on with. It’s about building for the open future.

An open city is a better city.

There’s countless other examples to demonstrate why an open city is better and to help you understand how to grow your city in a way that works for your problems and your challenges. But, as a start, I’d encourage all of you to pick a problem and get started. Work together with your businesses and citizens to solve that problem and start building that open city and make things better for everyone.

Open addresses: will the address wars ever end?

This is the (rough) text of a talk I gave at the British Computer Society (BCS) Location Information Specialist Group’s 3rd annual addressing update seminar in August 2016. There were more jokes in person. And some Pikachu. The slides for my talk are also online as are those for Ant Beck’s talk.

Hi, I’m Peter. I do some stuff at the Open Data Institute (ODI). The ODI was founded three years ago. It’s mission is to connect, equip and inspire people around the world to innovate with data. Its headquarters are in the UK but it works around the world.

I’m here to talk about open addresses in the UK. To understand the tale it’s useful to start off with a (shortened) bit of history.

Ancient history…

Addresses and other types of geospatial data were early targets for open data releases. They are vital datasets that make it possible to build many, many services and products. Way back in 2006 Charles Arthur and Michael Cross wrote in the Guardian to ask the UK government to “give us back our crown jewels”. They pointed out the complex arrangements for maintaining address data and how the data was sold to fund those complex arrangements. They even pointed out the issues it generated for the 2001 census.

In 2009 the UK government announced that Tim Berners-Lee, one of the ODI’s founders, was going to help it open up data and in 2010 government said that postcodes and address data were going to be early releases. Victory!

Some of the tales from 2013

But it was a pyrrhic victory. Whilst government released many thousands of datasets the promised address data was not one of them. In 2013 the Royal Mail was privatised along with its rights to help create and sell that address data. The complex arrangements that were pointed out in 2006 just got more complex. And, in the meantime, another census happened with the inevitable, and costly, need to build another new address list.

The open data community was rightly sad, and probably got a bit angry. They knew how important that data was. They kept working to make things better. They didn’t just tweet, they organised.

More recent history…

In 2014 the Cabinet Office’s release of data fund provided some money to the ODI to explore whether it was possible to rebuild the UK’s address list and publish it as open data. The ODI pulled together lots of people who work with addresses to share and debate ideas.

The homepage of Open Addresses

This led to the launch of Open Addresses UK. I was one of the team working for Open Addresses. We worked as openly as possible with regular blogs and open source code.

We explored the benefits of better address data for the UK. We found that we could help fix problems such as the months it can take before new addresses are added to computer systems across the country. Months during which someone might not be able to order a pizza, get home insurance or register to vote. We looked at the economic evidence from case studies of other countries, such as Denmark, that have released address data as open data. If the success of Denmark scaled in proportion to the population of the country then the UK could expect to see an extra £110 million a year of social and economic value. Value that we don’t get at the moment because paid data creates less economic value than open data.

We looked at funding models. We started off with £383k of funding from the Cabinet Office. We got some extra funding from BCS (thank you). We knew that we would need to be able to show people what our services would look like before we could start bringing in funding from the users of address services.

From talking with potential users of those services we learnt about the challenges of address entry on many websites. User research supported our theory that moving to free-format address entry would both make life easier for many people and lead to better quality address data going into organisations. We built a working demo of that service.

We knew we needed to gather address data. Following on from the discovery phase we built a model that would allow any organisation or individual to contribute their own address data; that would allow anyone to add large sets of open data containing addresses if they followed guidelines and confirmed that they were legally allowed to publish that address data as open data; and put in place a takedown policy to investigate and remove any infringing data. For the legally minded, we were set up to host the data. This was important. In the past people had been threatened with legal action by the Royal Mail over address data and the hosting model provided a defence.

Unfortunately we hit a snag.

Digital cholera makes me sad.

We learned that one of the largest open data sets held by government was tainted by what we called ‘digital cholera’. It contained third party rights that government was not authorised to licence as open data. This was no good. We wanted to publish address data that was safe to use.

We didn’t want to spend the limited grant funding on more and more legal advice or court battles (sorry lawyers…). So we concentrated on other approaches.

We used clean open data sets and statistical techniques to multiply the address data we already had. For example, “if house number 1 exists and house number 5 exists then house number 3 probably exists”.

We started developing a collaborative maintenance model. People could use our address services to both improve their own services and improve the address data that everyone was using. The model would enable us to learn and publish new address information (such as alternative addresses — like Rose Cottage rather than 8 Acacia Avenue and new addresses) as people started to use them. This would increase the speed of publishing new information and improve data quality. By crowdsourcing data through APIs the data would get better as more people used it.

The team recognised that these new ways of collecting address data would impact on confidence. So, we started developing a model that would allow the platform to declare a level of confidence in each address. The model allowed for different levels of trust based on how frequently we’d seen an address, who reported it, and how long ago they’d reported it. Data users could use the APIs to determine confidence and choose whether to trust an address for their particular use case.

But all this time the clock was ticking. There was limited funding. From the beginning we knew that we were testing two hypotheses.

Two hypotheses. Both are true.

Unfortunately we discovered that both hypotheses were true. We could build much better address services using modern approaches, but the intellectual property issues would keep hindering us.

A report was published: to share the lessons of what worked, and what didn’t. As you’ll see in the report even with all of our mitigations against intellectual property violations in place, Open Addresses was only able to find one insurer who would provide it with cover for defence against Intellectual Property infringement claims. The insurers were too concerned that the Royal Mail would take legal action to protect their revenues from address data.

A blog was published about the shades of grey in open data. And then Open Addresses went to sleep.

Someone else would have to take up the challenge of opening up address data and making things better for everyone.


While Open Addresses was happening so were other things. Lots of things. I’m obviously interested in the data ones.

The ODI was thinking about who owned our data infrastructure. Data is infrastructure to a modern society. Just like roads. Roads help us navigate to a location. Data helps us make a decision.

Spot the infrastructure in this excellent picture by Paul Downey.

The government was also working on its policy of government-as-a-platform. Companies House were opening up their data and putting it on the web. The Land Registry described itself as a steel thread that we could all build on.

Things started to come together with the description of registers as authoritative list that we could all trust. We could all build things on top of government’s open registers.

Registers are data infrastructure. An important part of data infrastructure is geospatial data, like addresses.


In the 2016 budget it was announced that government had allocated £5m to explore options to open up address data.

It is important to understand that this is about exploring options. As Open Addresses had learnt UK addresses are pretty complex. We have centuries of legacy to deal with.

Matt Hancock, who was the Minister for the Cabinet Office when the announcement was made, likened it to the ‘US administration (decision) to allow GPS data to be made freely available for civilian use in the 1980s, which he said had “kick-started a multi-billion dollar proliferation of digital goods and services”’.

He got the importance of this data being open. Not that surprising when you know that his parents ran a company that built “software that allows you to type your postcode into the internet and bring up your address”.

Government is building a common language about addresses.

Government is exploring the options as openly as possible. They are sharing their research into topics such as the need and complexity of address matching. and the need for a common language for addresses. They are trialling technology approaches, you can see the source code for yourself: it’s open. And this all forms part of the bigger picture of building registers as infrastructure for the government-as-a-platform strategy. In fact just this week government announced an early version of an authoritative register for English local authorities.

Whilst not all of the work is in the open (remember, the arrangements for UK address data are complex commercially and legally) it is clear that many government organisations — such as the Cabinet Office, Ordnance Survey, BEIS and Treasury — are working together to explore the options and business case for an open register. Good ☺

Will the address wars ever end?

All of the above is what I said in the talk at the BCS addressing update seminar. At the end the audience debated some of the issues raised. The legal issues seemed to confuse some people — derived database rights are tricky. Eventually I was asked the most important question: will this new UK government initiative to create an open address register succeed?

The honest answer is “I don’t know” but I do trust the people working on it. They are good and there is clear political will to get this problem sorted. With good people and political support it’s possible to do hard things. I choose to be optimistic. I think they’ll succeed. Good ☺

The web of data is coming.

It is important for the UK that they do. We need to build for the future web of data.

Other countries recognise the value of data infrastructure that is as open as possible. The USA, Australia and France have all recently made strong moves to get their address data open.

Data infrastructure is a competitive advantage in the 21st century. We need to move on from old licensing and funding models that don’t make the best use of the qualities of the web and data.

Let’s build better data infrastructure that makes things better for everyone.

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