alexandtheweb / blog

A designer meets open data

A few of us spent the Friday before last at the Open Data Cities conference, organised by local hero Greg Hadfield. The conference was ostensibly aimed at developers and public servants trying to liberate and transmute data into innovative services for the modern city – for me, however, the day proved filled with ideas for designers who like a challenge. I wish there’d been more of us in the audience.

People don’t think about the concept of “data” – especially not about owning it, generating it or gaining access to it through public services. People think about solving problems, getting things done and meeting their basic and higher needs. Socially engaged UX types who understand this are doing an amazing job of bridging the gap between “your data” and “your stuff” – see, for example, and We need more of them.

Below are a few highlights from my favourite talks of the day:

Tom Steinberg –
If you’re a good citizen, you’ve probably used one of’s online tools (such as and know how beautifully clear and intuitive they are. The herculean, near-criminal efforts of people like Tom to source and administer the data stores which underlie them is, as far as the end user is concerned, nowhere to be seen.

The first speaker of the day to wave the flag for user experience, Tom argued the value of open data can only become apparent to sceptics and detractors through tools that meet genuine needs. Case in point, Tom cited, the shining jewel in Barack Obama’s open government policy. Although far bigger than UK’s own government data portal, doesn’t begin to match its traffic figures – primarily because the vast data stores it offers have little to do with information people actually want. Tom’s key point: no city can be considered open if it doesn’t readily respond for real people’s requests for information.

Bill Thompson – BBC
Meet one of the great heroes of our age: Bill Thompson, who is leading the efforts to digitise the BBC archives and open them up to you to do with as we please. Bill’s recap of some of his team’s R&D projects sent my geek posse into giddy heights of excitement and we’ve now organised a trip to see the man himself at the BBC archives in June. There are still a few places left – get in touch if you’re interested in joining in.

Emer Coleman – Director of Digital Engagement, Government Digital Service
With open data often perceived as a “hyper-democratic” threat, Emer called for digital disruptors to grab at data stores as they become available and prove the value of shared information by building services that provide for the greater good. Emer’s talk reminded me of the best bit of advice anyone’s ever given me: “Don’t wait for someone’s permission to do something great”.

Anyway, fantastic day. There was also talk of transparency grenades, air quality eggs and Charles II’s Twitter feed.

A snippet of my craptastic sketchnotes below. A gentle reminder to myself that I desperately need to improve my scribbling skills.
Open data cities notes