Weeknote 8 – protocols and Data Bites

I went to the 41st edition Data Bites at the Institute for Government. If this is your first time reading about them, these are monthly events where four speakers present eight (a byte) minute presentations on topics relating to data in government. Then a short, eight-minute-long conversation follows.

They are organised because (from their website)

Better use of data is key to more effective government. Across government, teams are doing fascinating work with data, on everything from policy to public services, to visualisation and ethics.

But that work often doesn’t get the attention it deserves. ‘Data’ means many different things across government and is fragmented across (and within) different organisations, professions, and functions. Those not working directly with data may not understand the benefits better information can bring.

I found the presentation from the Hackney Local Authority the most interesting. Sandrine Balley presented how and why they developed a web map template to open up spatial data on their website. The lack of open data publication platforms motivated them. They wanted to have something simple, so there was no need for great technical skills or expensive commercial products to publish the authority’s geospatial information.

It works, and it solves their problem. However, when asked what they are doing to promote their solutions to other local authorities to share their work, Sandrine admitted that they “could do more”. And, of course, they were at the Data Bites. They are promoting the work. But as often in similar settings, the focus was on “look what we have done!”. It is not about sharing the technology, asking for collaboration to take it to the next step. It is about sharing success stories. Important, but an invitation to cooperation would be more powerful.

Since I joined the Civil Service and its Digital, Data and Technology function, I was inspired by the ambition to work in the open and reuse technology for the public good. And for better value for money. But I am growing more and more disappointed. There are some good examples of this, like for the Design System, but by large, the same problems are solved again and again with code dumped in public github repositories, but never reused.

This is despite the fact that there is a lot of effort to standardise and to enforce encourage compliance with centrally approved standards. I think the “standards” and “central” are parts of the problem in our very federated and rather anarchic organisation. I disagree. I have been talking about the benefits of agreeing on simple protocols over implementing standards whenever I have a chance. And there is plenty of opportunity because there is no shortage of big government projects aiming at standardising, centralising, solving “it” for “all”. I don’t think it will ever work. I think we need to find ways to collaborate without coordination. And protocols like those powering the internet, are good examples on how to do it.

And so I was very happy to come across The Unreasonable Sufficiency of Protocols article earlier this week. It is very long, but worth the time to read text about the benefits of protocols. It also differentiates protocols from related terms like standards, conventions, APIs, and platforms. It explains why protocols are best placed to increase cohesion without decreasing autonomy. This is what we need to collaborate without coordination. Have a read if you can spare the time. I hope I will get to discuss it soon at the 2023 Open Data Camp unconference in Wolverhampton.

There were a few other things this week that would be worth mentioning, but it is already Monday morning, 6 am local time in New York, and in two hours the Knowledge Graph Conference will start. I hope to learn much

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