Las Vegas industry event – or London data store launch?

On Thursday, 7 January we experienced a bit of both. Ostensibly, most of us in London turned up for the official launch of the latest in Open Government efforts, the launch of the Greater London Authority Data Store – an effort not unlike DataSF, the Guardian Open Tech Platform or the UK Government Open Data initiative.

The event, CES Government 2010 (#cesgov10 for those on twitter), was styled around a Skype-provided video link-up with Las Vegas, which reminded me of why businesses still avoid extensive use of videoconferencing. The link was unreliable, and had to be re-established so many times that momentum of the event was difficult to maintain.

Even so, the early third of the event was interesting, featuring London Mayor Boris Johnson, and Deputy Mayor Sir Simon Milton. Boris was entertaining – and to be fair handled the vagaries of the video link with his affable humour and aplomb. I think he’s to be congratulated for opening such a ‘geeky’ event and I welcomed his comments.

Sir Simon handled the detail of the announcement and drove home that London is committed to transparency and would work hard to deliver in its data release. Of this I had no doubt going into the event. There has been a general movement towards transparency and open government and from the GLA’s initial session with the development community three months ago until now we’ve seen – in Government terms – substantial progress and commitment.

In Las Vegas, Aneesh Chopra, the CTO for the US Government consistently implied that all of the UK’s efforts followed suit from President Obama’s initiatives – a point that Carol Tullo, Director for OPSI was quick to correct when she had the chance by touting the UK’s ongoing efforts in this area and around open data in general. I would echo that by saying the Power of Information Taskforce report released in draft this time last year already extensively spoke of open government and free data.

The line-up of speakers included a representative from NASA (who seemed completely out of place), Gerry Pennel, London 2012 CIO, Ailsa Beaton London Met Police CIO, and a panel with Chris Thorpe from Guardian Open Tech Platform, Tom Loosemore from 4ip and Carol Tullo from the Office of Public Sector Information (OPSI). Expertly moderated by Professor Jonathan Raper, this panel could easily have lasted three times its allocated slot.

Tom Loosemore, in announcing 4ip’s ‘challenge’ to apply for potential funding, made a clear point that it would not be individual developers who received funding but companies who came up with good ideas and plans for developing sustainable services. This last point is one I’ve sometimes gotten into trouble with the development community for making

And while I wanted to talk about utility apps and mobile here, I think Chris Thorpe’s blog post on this event has already done a fair job of it. Suffice to say that I agree with him that apps that represent utility will be the ones that provide the most benefit and see the most success.

While much is said about transparency, openness and releasing mountains of data, I can’t help but think about all of the companies I’ve watched in my 16 years in digital, who collected data and analytics – and then couldn’t figure out what to do with it all.

There is so much pressure on Government at the moment from the press, developers and rights activists to release data that I can’t help but wonder how the average Joe on the street will benefit from it all. This is best summarised by an observation I made attending the Young Rewired State event last year. A group of 15-18 year olds came together for a 2-day hack event held at Google in London.

Somewhat different to the Rewired State held earlier in the year with adult developers, I felt the young hackers were more interested in solving problems:

  • What is my safest route to school?
  • Can I carry identification that simply states am I legal/not legal for purchase?
  • How many minutes away is the bus – or have I missed it?

I guess this last bit is what I am waiting for. With so much data being released and on the verge of release (note the UK Government open data initiative) what problems do people need solved that they will find acceptable in a digital environment, that is useful and usable, and that we can source the right data to help solve the problem?

I found the CES Government 2010 event worthwhile and progressive. I think that the simple work is done, and that Emer Coleman and team – who did a magnificent job in pushing this effort forward – now has the difficult work of delivering on Sir Simon Milton’s promise that ALL GLA data sets will be in the site by the end of this month – and in maintaining momentum beyond the end of the month.

I think the battle with Tfl, the Met Police and others will be an ongoing one, and the only real proof of success in this effort ultimately resides in whether the average Joe on the streets has a need that is being successfully met using applications that are built using the data.

12/01/2010 – Video of Sir Simon Milton

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