Thursday 12 September 2013

Open data? Hmmmm

I have been impressed with SK53's use of open data in Nottingham, so I thought I'd see what was available for my home county of the East Riding of Yorkshire and for nearby Hull. The answer has been disappointing and frustrating.

I decided to look at the web site of the two councils in the hope that either of them had started to publish any open data. Not a trace of anything vaguely resembling publishing anything as open data on either site. For example, ERoY site has a map showing current road works. It needs MS Silverlight to see it, and when you do look, the data is copyright. Hull City website has a link to food hygiene data on the landing page, but that only sends you to the Food Standards Agency site, not a local data set and, as before, everything on their website seems to be copyright.

So, using SK53's example, I asked for food hygiene data from the two councils, in the hope that I would find a list of addresses just like he did. I sent an email request on Saturday 17th August to each council. The request said that I wanted to analyse food hygiene data and I would like to know if they publish such data as open data, preferably under the Open Government Licence. As I usually do in such matters I asked them to treat this as request under the Freedom of Information act.

Given that the request was sent on a Saturday, it is reasonable to expect that no one read it until the following Monday, 19th August, so I would expect the twenty working days clock that applies to FoI requests to start then. Allowing of the public holiday in August I would expect an answer by 17th September and both councils beat that deadline comfortably.

Hull City council responded quickly. On 21st August I got a reply from Garry of the Food and Health & Safety (sic) team to say they had been busy and would I please send my request to the Information Governance Team. He did also direct me to the FSA website too. This is directly contrary to the FoI act. It is also contrary to the Hull City Council policy on the FoI act. I replied pointing this out. The Information Governance Team responded by saying that the officer was wrong to direct me to them, apologised and said that the email should just have been forwarded to them internally. They confirmed that the deadline for their response would be 16th September. On the 29th August, well within the deadline, the Information Governance Team answered with the same idea as Garry: look at the FSA site.

ERoY council first replied on the 22nd of August. The email had an attached MS Word document. The first page had headings but was otherwise blank, the second page acknowledged my request, repeating my email, and the third page confirmed that they would reply by the 17th September, as I expected. On the 9th September I got a response. That too was an MS Word document attached to an email. That too recommended that I look at the FSA website to find such data. They gave a link to a council website page that includes a list of registered food premises. This is a simple list, with no description and no licence or copyright information, so it is not possible to assume that it is open data.

When I was disappointed with the lack of open data on either councils' websites I also sent an email to the Department for Communities and Local Government. They have suggested in the past that councils should expect to publish any data they have under an open licence. I asked if the DfCLA or my local Member of Parliament might be able to do anything to apply pressure to the councils to publish any data as open data as a driving force for openness and innovation. Today I got a response from Rt Hon David Davis MP, my MP, with an attached letter from Malcolm Sims, Director of Corporate Resources, East Riding of Yorkshire council. Mr Sims confirms that they have received an FoI request and that they will reply by 20th September, which they already have. Neither Mr Davis nor Mr Sims seem to grasp the underlying point: they don't publish open data, and don't seem to want to.

The art of politics is to give a response to a question that wasn't asked, but that you can answer.