Internet Week Europe is almost upon us, with almost 100 events listed so far.  But honestly, in London, one doesn’t need an ‘internet themed week’ to find fascinating talks and initiatives on new ways to use ‘the web’ – Lanyrd and MeetUp on the other hand, are great tools.  One of the groups worth following is ‘London Web Standards’, their most recent LWS Open & Creative meeting being about Open (and Linked) Data with Hadley Beeman and Glyn Wintle presenting the LinkedGov project.

The Great Escape from Microsoft Excel - Ann Wuyts, 2011, CC BY-SA

Open Government Data

As part of the ‘Transparency agenda’, the United Kingdom government has embraced the principles of Open Government Data.

Data.gov.ukBETA so far contains over 7,500 datasets, from all central government departments and a number of other public sector bodies and local authorities. Since its 2009 launch, more than 2,400 developers have registered.

Applications developed using these datasets include Crime Spy UK – an iPhone app that uses the UK Police API to retrieve information about neighbourhood areas and their crime rates – and the Numberhood app that highlights how local areas fare on important issues such as economy, unemployment, education, health, crime and housing, all neatly charted.

Decoding Departmental Datasets

In practice, though, many issues remain when trying to conjure ‘linked data’ using departamental-specific datasets.  Much of the data supplied by individual departments does not make sense to anybody outside that section of government without some serious decoding of acronyms and abbreviations.

Even if the data is fully comprehensible by ‘outsiders’, the different data formats (CSV, JOSN, XML, RDF, but with Microsoft Excel being the fav format and an occasional submission of tables in .jpg format) it needs to be exported from means that easy importing and use of the submitted data is not a given.

Open Data looking to Date - Ann Wuyts, 2011, CC BY-SA

LinkedGov – Crowdsourcing Data Clean Up

This is where LinkedGov hopes to step in.   Describing itself as a ‘community project to collaboratively clean and make usable data from local authorities and other public bodies’,  it plans to make available and link together as much data as they can.  Officially? “The main goal of LinkedGov is to create as complete as possible a body of government data that is accessible, discoverable, human-readable, machine readable, comparable and internally linked.”

LinkedGov will process data under the Open Government License and make it available through an API and a web-based search system – to government, entrepreneurs and the public alike.

Working on their LinkedGov Alpha, they have already created a user-friendly (read: non-technical) Google Refine front-end for submitting data to their growing database, and started ‘gamificating’ the further deciphering and linking of the mess tables and cells can occasionally be.  Crowdsourcing data clean up?  If the University of Oxford can convince us to translate what is Ancient Greek to us, volunteering a bit of  time to data which actually does concern us, seems in comparison a small and possibly fun effort – if this effort is presented right.

What is Linked Data?

Wikipedia defines Linked Data as “a term used to describe a recommended best practice for exposing, sharing, and connecting pieces of data, information, and knowledge on the Semantic Web using URIs and RDF.”

Learn more on linkeddata.org, or watch M. Hausenblas’ quick video introduction:

A mobile app means a government employee could be translating departmental codes on the tube in exchange for points.  A scoreboard might show which section is doing best at the decipherment mission.  Alternatively, I might be tempted to use my commuting time to confirm that in all Camden government related documents NULL, N/A, void, nugatory, a mere point, slash and the word ‘blank’ all mean a cell is ‘intentionally empty’.

It needs to be said that both the mobile app and scoreboard still need some development work, and that volunteers to help with the interface and framework are more than welcome to contact Hadley (@hadleybeeman). Rumour goes that rewards include hot choco and that nice feeling of helping something create that is fairly neat and new.  Additionally, LinkedGov’s is an open source project – browse and contribute at their GitHub repository.

Other Open Government Data Initiatives

Other ‘Open Data’ inspired initiatives in London at the moment include Rewired State’s Parliament Hack Day (developers and other interested parties still welcome), and  the London Datastore‘s (A New Standard Open Data Format for Public Toilets? Yes, we care!) call for apps.  Strangely, no London-based events (yet?) for the International Open Data Hackathon 2011 taking place on December 3rd.

For the United Kingdom, the Ordnance Survey is opening up some of its data using OS OpenData and OS OpenSpace ‘creative commons like’ licenses.  Internet giant Google chimes in with their world-wide ‘Public Data Explorer‘ project, focussing on large datasets.  Definitely browse-worthy there is the IMF’s September 2011 World Economic Outlook dataset.  Additionally, the Guardian’s World Government Data search engine comes complete with API and some neat visualisations.  For Belgium, the open data initiatives I’ve found so far are located (in Dutch, French, Germand and English) at data.gov.be and openbelgium.be.   Euro-centered apps and records can be found on the Open Knowledge Foundation managed publicdata.eu.