Since I came to Birmingham at the end of September I’ve been amused and fascinated with the town, it’s people, and their cultures. Forget the old ladies I saw this morning wagging their fingers and mouthing off expletives at the young female driver who refused to wait for them to cross the road; it amused me in a sad way (still laughed though) but that’s not the point.

Something else that fascinated me (and still does) is the difference in perception between the British and people from outside Europe. I remember talking to daveharte about CCTV here and how it gives me an added sense of security; turns out in Birmingham surveillance cameras are becoming an issue with organizations like BigBrotherWatch, Liberty, No-CCTV etc. mobilizing and calling for the cameras to be pulled down. I’ve talked this over with a few people since then, and the verdict is the same, surveillance cameras are slowly but surely becoming an  infringement on their rights to privacy.

Truth is I don’t blame them, they have a right to be paranoid when cameras are installed in High School toilets without notifying the children or their parents (even when the school says the cameras were placed only by the sinks), or when there are now devices that can capture audio and direct the cameras towards suspicious sounds on the streets. The plan of all of this is to nip violence in the bud but people are having none of it, claiming that it is part of the plan to turn Britain into a surveillance society.

Having said all that, I must say the recent attraction for me is Open Data, its opportunities, complexities, and how it fits in nicely with the idea of the Intelligent Community first step of which is getting Britain online by 2012.

I first heard of Open Data at the Hyper Local Government Camp event, but I didn’t really understand it then. I thought it was only about the government making public their spending data, and using information put out by government agencies to bully them (the government) into doing their jobs (a la Will Perrin and the ‘crackavan story’). Nothing could be farther from the truth!

I’ve since come to learn that Open Data does have to with sharing of information (both by the government and its citizens) but it’s a lot more than that. Dwelling on examples from the United States, acclaimed world leaders in data sharing, this presentation sums up the benefits of open government data using the most real to life examples of how even regular organizations achieved success by sharing information on what they couldn’t do on their own!

Wikipedia defines Open Data in relation to governments as “holding that the business of government and state administration should be opened at all levels to effective public scrutiny and oversight”. It is worthy of note that Wikipedia is a product of worldwide collaboration and information sharing which is  one of the aims of information being put out there and is Charles Leadbeater’s biggest argument for participation rather than mere production and consumption in the creation of the future society.

At the Beyond 2010 event, it was great listening to Kate Sahota from Warwickshire Council explain what Open Data is using a popular film, and then tell of how it has helped

·         Efficiency because more minds on an issue make for an easier workload for the authorities, the people can mash and reuse the data to solve problems of their own;

·         Transparency, because people are less tempted to pilfer when specifics of their actions are available for public scrutiny;

·         Accuracy and data quality because everyone becomes a moderator for what is put up.

All she said just re-enforced what David Miller, the Mayor of Toronto said, still on the benefits of Open data, “when you open up data there’s no limit to what people can do. It engages the imagination of citizens in building the city”.

Even scholars are realizing the need for Open Access to their work (yay), and quoting Dr. Arianna Betti , a researcher in the field of history of logic, “Right now, we still must choose between Open Access and prestige. Let’s keep our copyright. Let’s put our publications online available in repositories……The future is Open Access”. She was speaking at the Open Access Week, now in its fourth year.

As with every other bright looking idea, there are challenges and obstacles to Open Data, first of which is digital exclusion; whether because of the lack of infrastructure or because the people are not just interested in using computers. Open Data also raises questions like how much of public data should the government release, how high is the risk of inaccurate information (which is worse than no information at all); Kate Sahota said something about councils worrying about how they can make money off the data they release, and then there’s the Ordnance Survey (which I still can’t wrap my head around)!

Adding credence to Warwickshire’s concerns about selling their data, Charles Leadbeater said, “……..That culture of sharing also makes the web difficult for governments to control and hard for corporations to make money from”.

FutureGov  asked officials in South Korea, Singapore, the UK and the Netherlands whether they feel that the benefits of open government data outweigh the costs, their responses are here

It’s very exciting for me, this Open Data thing; makes me feel like developing countries without regular internet (or with more pressing problems than digital inclusion) have a looooooong, long way to go in becoming intelligent, in saving some money (in these days of recession), in empowering their citizens to make informed decisions for themselves, and in truth, and in not being excluded from the rest of the world.

I’m thinking of Nigeria and saying, “if only we knew……..”



P: S – please don’t forget I’m still receiving comments and suggestions on the Two Books a Month (TBAM) project. It’s just a click away Thank you!!!

  1. Sylva says:

    Don’t we all ask that question and wonder at how far the rest of the world has gone while we still grapple with meeting the basic needs of life. while they worry about CCTV nosing into their privacy, we here endure kilometers of trekking under the sun because the streets of Abuja have none and gbomo Jomo (or is it his wanna be alias now) had issued a bomb threat. They argue about open assess when here we still carry placards asking for freedom of information bill.

    If only……


  2. myne Whitman says:

    We do have a long way to go. But personally, i can do without so much intrusion into my privacy.


  3. I agree with Myne.

    I hardly come in contact with the CCTV and I try to imagine how apprehensive one could be, fully aware that one’s life is being recorded in bits wherever one goes. When we get there in Nigeria, I guess we’ll just have to figure out how to deal with it…


    • I agree with Myne, and with you too, too much of everything is bad. I however think that if the appropriate infrastructure were put in place, CCTV could help curb crime, especially if people knew that the cameras were functional and the police had the manpower and intelligence to handle images captured.


  4. jimmy says:

    makes me want to drink alchoholic beverages


    • Why? Alcoholic beverages don’t keep you warm now, or do they? Either ways, and at the risk of sounding preachy, they are unhealthy and my personal favorite, are tantamount to burning a candle (in this scenario you), from both ends.


  5. […] If Only We Knew……… ( […]


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