Open data challenges

There was an interesting report released yesterday on the UK Government’s progress towards their open data goals. The report revealed that the Government was on track in terms of the volume of data released but it highlighted some significant challenges that need to be addressed in order to ensure the data is useful to those who want to use it. In the higher education sector we are facing similar challenges.

You can read the full report on the parliament publications page. Or, if you’re after more of a digest, the Guardian report is good.

The report highlights a lot of challenges but in my reading of it these resolve into the following main questions that need to be answered:

  • How can the data released be made easier for the public to browse, consume and reuse?
  • How can the Government ensure that the right information is released and that it is adequate to meet the transparency objectives?
  • How can the Government ensure that the data released allows for easy comparison and analysis?
  • What are the costs and benefits involved in the release of the data?

These questions apply equally to the pursuit of open data in Higher Education. In the DI team we have developed programmes that experimented with the use of open linked data in higher education, with the use of open and linked data for libraries, museums and archives and with geospatial data. All of these areas offer real potential for higher education in terms of more efficient services and in terms of useful new tools to support research and education.

As a result of the JISC linked data projects we scoped and commissioned a report that Curtis and Cartwright produced on the benefits of linked data to higher education. This report includes a benefits map which provides a useful outline of the potential of engaging with linked data (pages 13 and 15).

We are seeing widespread engagement with open and linked data in the library, archive and musuem world with the British Library, Harvard University, OCLC, the British Museum and many, many others all releasing data and conducting experiments. In JISC we have been active in this area through the Discovery programme and are learning how and when open data can deliver benefits to libraries museums and archives.

Southampton University and Lincoln University are making interesting progress with open data. Both institutions have dedicated open data sites:

And both have interesting examples of the ways in which this data can be used. In Lincoln, students have used the open data to develop tools that they need. In Southampton open data has been used to develop a whole raft of apps including a catering search to find out where the snack you want can be bought on campus.

I think it is fair to say that the Government has so far focused on getting data released and is now starting to deal with the challenges that this open data is posing. In JISC we have had a similar focus as we believe a useful first step is to work out the processes involved in releasing data and to build up a decent corpus before starting to address these difficult challenges in earnest. Any future work we scope in this area will start to grapple with these key questions. We believe that the work we have done so far in this area and work done by others in higher education has indicated that there are significant benefits on offer if we get this right so these questions are well worth the effort required to develop answers.

It will be interesting to see how the Open Data Institute helps to address these challenges when they are up and running. We’ll be keeping a close eye on their work and other Government efforts as any progress they make is bound to be relevant to our work in Higher Education.