Reasons to be cheerful

Reasons to be cheerful
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The 1979 UK top ten hit by punk band Ian Dury and the Blockheads listed a whole raft of reasons to be cheerful:

• Rock ‘n’ Roll singer Buddy Holly
• The Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, Russia
• Scammell Lorries (A British company who built heavy lorries, specifically an 18-wheeler lorry)
• Equal voting rights for men and women
• Little Richard’s 1956 hit “Good Golly Miss Molly”
• Piccadilly Circus, London
• Porridge oats
• Generosity and politeness
• Carrot juice
• The National Health Service’s free glasses (known for being unattractive and amusing to look at)
• Steven Biko (though more likely the anti-apartheid movement and other positive outcomes of his struggle and death)
• Comedians the Marx Brothers (‘Harpo, Groucho, Chico’)
• Yellow socks
• White Wine
• A Ploughman’s lunch (‘Cheddar cheese and pickle’)
• Sex (‘slap and tickle’)
• Famous Spanish painter Salvador Dalí
• Now defunct UK motorcycle manufacturer Vincent Motorcycles
• Saxophonist John Coltrane, specifically his soprano saxophone playing.
• Self-education (“something nice to study”)

Amidst an almost daily deluge of depressing news about the abuse of our data by both governement and commerce, it’s good to come across some good news. And there is some!

At the core of the Handshake proposition is the belief that data, knowledge, and understanding, and the exchange and use of information are “good things”. Intelligence on the one hand, and communication on the other are things that humans have specialised in, are pretty good at, and which have allowed us to make the world we live in today. It’s heartening to find that other people feel the same about the fundamental importance of information and communication.

The Open Knowledge Foundation exists, in their words, “to open up knowledge around the world and see it used and useful”. Their website is well worth a visit, but here’s a flavour of what they are about:

Transparency: In a well-functioning, democratic society citizens need to know what their government is doing. To do that, they must be able freely to access government data and information and to share that information with other citizens. Transparency isn’t just about access, it is also about sharing and reuse — often, to understand material it needs to be analyzed and visualized and this requires that the material be open so that it can be freely used and reused.”

Participation and engagement – (open data is about) participatory governance, and for business and organizations (it means) engaging with your users and customers. Much of the time citizens are only able to engage with their own governance sporadically — maybe just at an election every 4 or 5 years. By opening up data, citizens are enabled to be much more directly informed and involved in decision-making. This is more than transparency: it’s about making a full “read/write” society, not just about knowing what is happening in the process of governance but being able to contribute to it.”

Releasing social and commercial value. In a digital age, data is a key resource for social and commercial activities. Everything from finding your local post office to building a search engine requires access to data, much of which is created or held by government. By opening up data, government can help drive the creation of innovative business and services that deliver social and commercial value.”

The Open Data Foundation publish an annual Open Data Index. This ranks countries in terms of how good their government (and other organisations) are at the making information available and accessible in ten key areas:

• government spending
• government budget
• election results
• transport timetables
• postcodes
• a high level copy of a national map
• air quality and pollution levels
• legislation
• a company register
• and national statistics

The 2013 index, which has just been released, gives the UK the best score for open data. The US is second (which in the light of the revelations about the NSA and GCHQ is rather ironic). Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands follow the UK and US. Of the 70 countries assessed, Cyprus, St Kitts & Nevis, the British Virgin Islands, Kenya and Burkina Faso record the lowest scores.

Rufus Pollock, Founder and CEO of the Open Knowledge Foundation, commenting on the 2013 Open Data Index, said: “Opening up government data drives democracy, accountability and innovation. It enables citizens to know and exercise their rights, and it brings benefits across society: from transport, to education and health.” But he also went on to note: “There has been a welcome increase in support for open data from governments in the last few years, but this Index reveals that too much valuable information is still unavailable.”

An issue the research for the Index highlighted is a lack of re-usability of the data that is available. Less than half of the ten key datasets in the top 20 countries are available to re-use as open data.
Pollock explains that even leading countries don’t realise the importance of re-usability to open data: “For the true benefits of open data to be realised, governments must do more than simply put a few spreadsheets online. The information should be easily found and understood, and should be able to be freely used, reused and shared by anyone, anywhere, for any purpose.”

Psychologists have shown that there are two fundamental drivers of behaviour which determine whether or not you choose to do something: whether you want to do it, and whether you (think you) can do it. The Open Data Index looks to be a good reflection of those two factors. If you want a society that wants to open up its data in order to see it used and to make it useful you not only have to believe that this is a good thing, but you also need to have the technical and economic capability to see those aspirations come to fruition. Much to my, and I suspect many other people’s surprise, it seems that Britain is out in front in this respect. Most certainly a reason to be cheerful!

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