April 2, 2012

Open Data Manchester: Twenty Four Hour Data People

Sean Ryder at the Hacienda by Tangerine Dream on flickr

Sean Ryder, the original twenty-four hour Manchester party person of the Happy Mondays, spins the discs at the Wickerman festival in 2008. Creative commons licensed image via Tangerine Dream on flickr.com

According to Francis Maude, Open Data is the raw material for “next industrial revolution”. Now you should obviously take everything politicians say with a large pinch of salt (especially Maude) but despite the political hyperbole, when it comes to data he is onto something.

According to wikipedia, which is considerably more reliable than politicians, Open Data is:

“the idea that certain data should be freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control.”

Open Data is slowly having an impact in the world of science [1] and also in wider society. Initiatives like data.gov in the U.S. and data.gov.uk in England, also known as e-government or government 2.0, have put huge amounts of data in the public domain and there is plenty more data in the pipeline. All of this data makes novel applications possible, like cycling injury maps showing accident black spots, and many others just like it.

To discuss the current status of Open Data in Greater Manchester there were two events last week:

  1. The Open Data Manchester meetup “24 hour data people” [2] at the the Manchester Digital Laboratory (“madlab”), which recently made BBC headlines with the DIY bio project
  2. The Discover Open Data event at the Cornerhouse cinema
Here is a brief and incomplete summary of what went on at these events:

1. Open Data Manchester, there is data outside of London

The meeting was hosted by @madlab / @omniversity appropriately located in the bohemian Northern Quarter. Madlab describes itself as:

“a community space for people who want to do and make interesting stuff – a place for geeks, artists, designers, illustrators, hackers, tinkerers, innovators and idle dreamers; an autonomous R&D laboratory and a release valve for Manchester’s creative communities.”

Sounds like my kind of place. The event was well attended by people from diverse backgrounds including Salford and Manchester City Councils, freelance software developers and bods from BBC Mega Media Monster City. It was great to meet some of these of people, and pleasantly surprising to find such a thriving community of techno-geeks in the city.

Most of the discussion at the meeting centred around the upcoming Manchester hackathon. The council are soliciting ideas for the kinds of data that they should publish for the hackathon, so I scribbled some notes from the discussion on the wish-list of data and services:

Some common themes were:

  • Data providers need to publish reliable and scalable services, not just raw data in agreed formats to maximise re-use of their data (hmmm, that sounds very familiar [3])
  • Integrating data across fragmented and rival city-states [3] can be a big political headache. In Greater Manchester, these warring states are called metropolitan boroughs: Bolton, Bury, Oldham, Rochdale, Stockport, Tameside, Trafford, Wigan as well as the cities of Salford and Manchester. Breaking down technical and political walls between many isolated data silos held in these boroughs and cities is a constant challenge.
  • How can momentum be sustained? How can a big bang of data and services, which is often followed by inaction be avoided?

Thanks to Julian Tait (@julianlstar) and friends @opendatamcr / Future Everything for sorting the meeting and to Paul Dobson for putting me in touch with the Omniversity in the first place. I’m looking forward to more meetings like this in the future, see opendatamanchester.org.uk for details of upcoming events.

2. Discovering Open Data at the Cornerhouse

Should we Mash-up or Shut-up?

Following on from Open Data Manchester, Discover Open Data was hosted @CornerHouseMcr on Oxford Road and attended by about 20 people from different arts and cultural organisations across the North West. Organisers Isabelle Croissant (@?) and Sarah Leech (@saramleech) had lined up a selection of speakers to talk about Open Data which included the following:

Alan Holding (@gentlemanhog) from the Manchester Digital Development Agency (@mdda) gave a gentle introduction to Open Data for the primarily non-technical audience that were present. Alan defined Open Data as:

“Open data is a way for you to make it easy for yourself and other people to play with, re-shape and present your data into new, interesting and more directed ways.”

Alan went on to describe how open data is used, which included a non-techie explanation of API as a ‘receptionist’ giving access to a wide range of functions in an organisation, using flickr as a worked example. This is a useful analogy, it can be really difficult to explain to non-techies what the hell an API is. He used flickr to explain what applications you can build on top of the flickr api which demonstrates why you might want to allow other people to access your data in this way.

Rachel Coldicutt (@rachelcoldicutt) discussed the ideas behind Culture Hack and some of the things it has produced. Culture hack facilitates the fusion of art and web technology. Successful culture hacks have often followed a release early, release often strategy, such as Site Gallery in Sheffield, Lighthouse in Brighton and Spike Island in Bristol which have used Open Data right from the start. A NESTA and AHRC funded project Happenstance has more details.

Isabelle Croissant and Rachel Leech then held a panel discussion about experiments at the Cornerhouse with Open Data with the software developers involved in the trials. The Cornerhouse have published a list of the 3000 films it has screened since 1999 as a CSV file and experimented with it internally. This has allowed some nice applications such as geo-locating films to provide an overview of which countries films have come from using the Google Maps API. Some of these examples will be available on the main cornerhouse.org website soon. Like most commercial organisations there is potentially sensitive customer data that needs protecting, several people in the audience suggested that it would be interesting to publish ticketing information (e.g. how many tickets sold for each film) but it’s not clear if making this Open Data is in the best interests of the cinema. Mashups of film data with train timetables was a commonly requested application, e.g. “We’re watching film X, when is the next/last train home?”, would be very useful.

Julian Hartley (@JulianHartley) and Steve Devine (@SteveDevine) from the Whitworth Art Gallery and Manchester Museum talked about geo-locating paintings and other parts of museum and art collections. These typically have to be works of art out of copyright, older than 50 years. Examples can be found at culturehacknorth/the-hacks which include geo-tagged artwork on flickr, e.g. paintings of the Lake District appear alongside photos people have taken of that location.

Last but not least Frankie Roberto (@frankieroberto) from folksy.com gave a great talk on the three stages of Open Data which are, according to Frankie:

  1. It’s our data, you can’t have it! (aka data-hugging) Organisations are reluctant to publish data openly. This stage is usually circumvented by Freedom Of Information (FOI) requests, stealing, screen-scraping or just good old fashioned Screw You! we’ll do it ourselves and crowd-source it (e.g. Open StreetMap).
  2. Hey, here’s an Interesting App Once data is available openly, interesting applications can be built. For example, ASBOrometer measures levels of anti-social behaviour at your current location, Schooloscope (“pimp my Ofsted”) presents school data and Google Public Data are all examples of open data being used to do interesting stuff.
  3. Hey, here’s a Useful App After going through an interesting phase, applications mature into useful ones. The likes of FixMyTransport “Euston, we have a problem”, TheyWorkForYou and iFindBikes are examples of applications that have evolved from being merely interesting to actually useful or commercial entities.

Frankie concluded his talk with a handy characterisation of what he sees as some of the differences between useful and interesting data and applications shown in the table below:

Characteristic Interesting data Useful data
Change Static data, not frequently updated Changing data, e.g. frequently updated
Formats Rough ‘n’ Ready (CSV, HTML) Well-defined formats (JSON, XML etc)
Use One-off demo Used daily
Availability Data dumps, “try this” Data feeds (ATOM, RSS etc), tried and tested
What? Hacks and mashups (proof of concept) Apps, API’s and Services that are reliable
Who? Produced free by volunteers and hackers for fun Produced by long-lasting professional partnerships and collaborations
Longevity Ephemeral Sustainable

Slides from all the talks above should be available at Discover Open Data Cornerhouse page soon. Thanks to Isabelle, Sarah and the Cornerhouse for organising a great event, looking forward to more of the same in the future.


London has been a world leader with Open Data [4], and has set an example that other cities and large organisations around the world are now following [5,6,7,8,9].

If Open Data enables better science [1], then Open Data can also enable better government: better value for money, better transparency and better services for the tax paying public. It’s a 24:7 party to which everyone is invited and by the looks of things, the party has only just started.


  1. Jennifer Molloy (2011) The Open Knowledge Foundation: Open Data Means Better Science PLoS Biology, 9 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001195
  2. Sean Ryder, John Cale, Bez et al (1987) Twenty Four Hour Party People (available on youtube)
  3. Lincoln Stein (2002) Creating a bioinformatics nation: fragmented societies are weakened by competition Nature, 417 (6885), 119-120 DOI: 10.1038/417119a
  4. Boris Johnson et al (2012) data.london.gov.uk
  5. Howard Bernstein et al (2012) manchester.gov.uk/opendata
  6. Robert Zoellick et al (2012) data.worldbank.org 
  7. Mike Whitby et al (2012) Birmingham Civic Dashboard: civicdashboard.org.uk – alpha release
  8. Steven Inchcoombe et al (2012) data.nature.com see Nature Publishing Group releases linked data platform
  9. Jennifer Pahlka (2012) Coding a better government with the Code for America programme

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