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What is happening with Open Data in Aberdeen?

Aberdeen City Council is considering axing its participation in Scotland’s biggest ever Open Data programme. Staff there are alarmed that a review of projects may be used to cancel ones such as this in a short-sighted, cost-saving drive  conducted by managers who don’t necessarily understand the value of Open Data nor the project’s significance at national and city-regional levels.

You can monitor how this progresses on the What Do They Know site where I have logged an FOI request and this subsequent one [UPDATED 13.08.17] to better understand this.

Some Background

I recently left Aberdeen City Council after almost 19 years there. Latterly my role there encompassed a broad Smart City remit, but I’d led on open data since 2011-12 when we were the first local authority of 32 in Scotland to publish open data. Having been identified as leaders in the field, we were invited to participate in two significant Nesta programmes involving Open Data: Make It Local and Open Data Scotland. Such was the interest in these that I spoke about them in conferences in Vienna, Zurich, London, Edinburgh and elsewhere.

Despite those successes, getting organisational traction on Open Data was challenging, and it felt like we were stalling, so when Scottish Cities Alliance launched its programme, “Scotland’s 8th City the Smart City“, it was an unique and welcome opportunity to collaborate on a national programme with all seven of Scotland’s cities.

I was delighted that I was chosen to lead the Open Data strand of the programme, as we could use Aberdeen’s experience and my own knowledge to shape the programme, and deliver some significant benefits at a city and national level. By putting (open) data at the heart of a programme which encompassed transport, energy, environment, health and more, the Alliance partners demonstrated joined-up thinking across the cities which I’d not seen before.

The open data project allowed authorities to use a centrally-held City Investment Fund and European Regional Development Fund moneys to effectively double the council’s financial commitment. It would see all 7 cities in Scotland with modern, first-class open data portals which would host open data for the whole city region (not just council data); a programme of co-ordinated open data publishing; the creation and development of local and national communities which would entail the use of data for social and economic outcomes.

Outside work, or at least the day job, I co-founded Code The City which worked with services in the local authority, and other providers, to better use open data, service design, and community engagement to make  people’s lives better. That became a spring-board for establishing a node of the ODI in Aberdeen. This node is the first and only one in Scotland. For the node to realise its potential it needs to be part of an active eco-system with other local OD actors including the local authority.

But I left Aberdeen City Council at the end of June with the sense that the senior management there just didn’t really get understand the significance of data (open or otherwise) in the need to bring about the digital transformation of services. I also detected a reluctance to collaborate with national partners, or locally, to grow the eco-systems needed to sustain a smart city region. While I recognise the budgetary pressures on the council, I  am left confused by the approach of cutting significant numbers of experienced middle and senior managers, while not investing in data: from open data, to data science, to drive the fundamental improvements needed in how services operate.

So what now?

If Aberdeen City Council pull the plug on their participation in the SCA’s Open Data programme then what is the impact locally and nationally?

The council will show that they are happy to go backwards: from being the pioneer in open data in Scotland, and the one leading the national programme, Aberdeen will find itself at the foot of a table of Scottish Authorities – behind even Clackmannanshire, Scotland’s smallest council. The city as a whole will suffer – with no OD publishing platform, and no activity around the use of data.

It will be sending a clear signal to citizens, local businesses and academia. At a time when Opportunity North East is investing £4m in digital for the city, the council will be announcing that it cannot even put the one of the foundations of a Smart City in place.

It will also be saying to the national partners that it knows better than them: while Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, Perth, Inverness and Stirling collaborate on an ambitious programme which will see social and economic benefits, and community and business engagement, Aberdeen doesn’t want that. This failure to recognise the importance of collaboration – particularly in digital and data – is concerning. In this case the other six authorities will benefit from collaborative procurement, development, agreement on standards, and in the national activity in the use of data. Not Aberdeen.

What can you do?

If you are concerned that Aberdeen City Council may be about to make a fundamental error by cancelling their participation in this project, then you can do one of a number of things:

I care deeply about Aberdeen as a city. I am committed to data and collaborative approaches in its use. I want Aberdeen to be a leading city, not only in Scotland, but in Europe. That needs political support to do the right things – with elected members and officials having the knowledge to make the right decisions. Part of that is the development of a data-driven, digital environment which supports citizens, businesses, SME start-ups and academia to be creative, innovate and flourish. Cancelling its open data programme would not only impede this but would potentially stop much of this in its tracks.

What messages does the city – and the council – want to send to the world outside the city boundaries?

Ian Watt

Trustee

ODI Aberdeen

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