OKFN Meetup #6

Thursday 16th of May was the 6th Open Knowledge Foundation meetup in Edinburgh. We had a great room in Techcube, more speakers than usual and loads of attendees. Here's an account.

Bill Roberts

Bill, founder of Swirrl ("the linked data company") talked about tools and user interfaces they are developing to make handling data easier for communities; particularly for the less technical. They've encountered a spectrum of users with different levels of technical abilities and needs, so they have to account for this in the tools they build. Technical complexity for accessing data ranges from SPARQL endpoints, JSON APIs, downloadable spreadsheets to visualisations, maps and charts.

They're focussing on providing the data in accessible ways rather than building visualisations though. They'd struggle to meet or even understand everyone's needs; instead, it's important to concentrate in empowering the communities to use the data themselves.

Kim Taylor

An undergraduate Informatics student and participant of the Smart Data Hack, Kim showed us placED, the project her team had worked on, and are continuing to develop.

This is a place finder for people who are looking to maintain or improve their personal wellbeing. They used datasets from the City of Edinburgh Council (and presumably ALISS?) to create an Android app. They stored their data in a Google AppEngine datastore, but I'm not sure if it has a web frontend as well.

Some of the problems they encountered include copyright issues with ordnance survey place data, and royal mail postcode data, which made up part of the Council's data but wasn't available for anyone to use due to licensing restrictions. They worked around this by recomputing location data from the parts of addresses the did have access to with Google's geocoding API.

When they open their database up for user input, which they inevitably will if they want their app to stay current and useful, they'll have to think about how to maintain the content.

Gavin Crosby

Gavin works for the Council, with a title I've forgotten, but it's to do with youth work. Youth work has a very specific definition to do with people aged between 11 and 25, meeting in organised groups with a volunteering adult present. There's loads of this going on in Edinburgh, organised by Scouts/Guides, schools, churches or maybe even self-organised. There's no central database about what is going on where, which is one of the Council's biggest issues in this area. Word of mouth is usually how this kind of information is spread amongst young people, and Gavin suggested that a lot of youths may be unwilling to attend something they'd heard about without a direct invitation from someone they know.

In an attempt to reign some of this information in, they've created the Youth Work Map.

It's not an ideal system, as they have to update it manually when a youth group or activity organiser decide to inform the Council that they exist. Not everybody opts in, so there is data missing. Manual updating also means the map is not 'live'; things might go out of date and not be removed straight away.

Gavin said it is the constraints of the Council's web system that has caused a lot of the problems, and points out that they haven't considered accessibility issues (for example, access for people with vision problems), and it's not interactive. He'd love to see the ability for kids to chat to each other through the map, or leave reviews for particular events. There are issues with child protection here, of course.

He would also like to see better tagging and organisation of the content on the map, links to other data repositories (there are parallel similar projects), and the ability to connect events to areas or routes rather than single points.

Gavin pointed out that a lot of the audience for this map is likely to be adults looking for youth projects, rather than young people themselves.

Leah Lockhart

Leah made a quick announcement about the new Local Government Open Data Working Group. They're organising open data surgeries (similar to her social media surgeries that you've definitely heard of by now if you're floating around the OD scene in Edinburgh). They're also hoping to fill in the OKFN Open Data Census for Scotland, and meet regularly in the pub.

Tweet Leah if you're interested!

Fiona McNeill

Fiona works in Informatics at the University of Edinburgh, and she told us about Open Data in climate change science, or the lack thereof. A team she has put together have got some funding to carry out a small investigation about Open Data use in climate change science, and to try to build a network around this. They'll be looking at trends and patterns of the past decade to see if research has been any more successful when existing datasets were used, or if papers are more well-cited when they make their data open at the end of it (for example).

She thinks the lack of Open Data in this area could be due to the expensive nature of making data good enough quality to share, and of course the fact that when people have worked hard to gather data they feel that they own it; why should they share?

They're hoping that their report might go some way to persuading funding bodies to have sharing of data as a criteria for applications.

Contact Fiona if you're interested in this kind of thing.

John Kellas

John said, brilliantly, that talking about information visualisation usually means graphs. But normal people "don't think in graphs".

He works in community education, and a couple of years ago he started working in "volumetric and comparative" visualisations, which can be much more useful and empowering to people. He showed us a visualisation of one trillion dollars (which I can't find a link to, so let me know if anyone has one).

He's not had much support with creating tools and visualisations, because he's not interested in making money from it, so it's hard to attract funding. What he's doing looks really useful though, so hopefully we'll see more!

Ben Jeffery

Ben is another undergraduate Informatics student who took part in the Smart Data Hack and whose team is still working on the project they started at the hack. They're re-imagining the University's student information portal by pulling in lots of different data sources, and presenting the information more sensibly. They've been doing a fantastic job, but of course are all busy with exams and general learning, so the haven't been able to spend as much time on this as they'd like.

They're also struggling to get raw data out of the University, and point to (my alma mater) the University of Lincoln's open data portal as an example of what could and should be done about this. So they're turning their project into a pilot to demonstrate what they could do if they had the data they wanted. They're also conscious of similar-but-different projects, like projects.ed.ac.uk, and don't want to duplicate effort.

Ben said they've found that a lot of the University of Edinburgh's data is held by middleware vendors, so it's particularly hard to access. But this is information that is funded by students, so it should be available to them! He said the "University should be a breeding ground for knowledge" so data shouldn't be silo'd up.

He also said that there are a lot of politics in the way with this sort of thing. They, as any level-headed software developer, just want to build stuff. They're still in various talks though, so this is a space to watch...

Susan Pettie and Marc Horne

These guys are from So Say Scotland and aim to change culture to make Scotland better. Open Data is important for democratic movements, so they told us about some of their events. They're building a network of activists and campaigners, and hold large scale assemblies themed around 'thinking together', which is a kind of en masse guided brainstorming. They're trying to spark a movement, and are aiming for 25,000 people. They're investigating ways to make their assemblies more efficient, as currently collating all of the ideas that are generated is a manual process. This would be nigh on impossible when they reach their participation goal.

There will be a report about their progress on the 27th of May.

Devon Walshe

Devon was our Techcube host, and he told us about Sync Geeks, Geeks in Residence. This is a program funded by Creative Scotland that puts the technologically minded into arts organisations. Previous efforts by arts organisations to employ 'geeks' to solve a technical problem or produce a digital solution for something have been problematic due to the 'black box' approach. The developers produce an outcome, get paid and leave, often aiming to do the minimum amount of work. Geeks in Residence promotes developers and the organisations working together more closely, to allow for sustainable solutions.

Part of the project is to analyse the relationships of people who know about technology, and those who don't, with each other.

In my notes I've scribbled "convert fear into technology", and I can't remember what that originated from, but it sounds awesome.

Devon did some work with Stills photography centre. Nobody knew what they needed, so after some collaboration they developed an interactive floor plan (because the Stills building is way confusing) and some kind of interactive timeline because Stills has an interesting history.

He also plugged the Culture Hack Scotland in Glasgow in July (12th- 14th), which I'm terribly disappointed I won't be in the country for.

Next OKFN meetup

Will be on the 22nd of August, in Informatics. Here's a link to the Meetup so you can RSVP. I'll sure be there, if I'm not somewhere else.. (depends if/when/where my Mum books an obligatory family holiday).

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