Open data from the inside: Lichfield Council’s Stuart Harrison

I’m trying to get a feel for what some of the most innovative government departments and local authorities are doing around releasing data. I spoke to Stuart Harrison of Lichfield Council, which is leading the way at a local level.

What has been your involvement with open data so far?

I’ve been interested in open data for a few years now. It all started when I was building a site for food safety inspections in Staffordshire (http://www.ratemyplace.org.uk/), and after seeing the open APIs offered by sites such as Fixmystreet, Theyworkforyou etc, was inspired to add an API (http://www.ratemyplace.org.uk/api). This then got me thinking about all the data we publish on our website, and whether we could publish this in an open format. A trickle quickly turned into a flood and we now have over 50 individual items of open data at http://www.lichfielddc.gov.uk/data.

I think the main thing I’ve learnt is that APIs are great, but they’re not always necessary. My early work was on APIs that link directly into databases, but, as I’ve moved forward, I’ve found that this isn’t always necessary. While an API is nice to have, it’s sometimes much better to just get the data out there in a raw format.

What have people done with the data so far?

As we’re quite a small council, we haven’t had a lot of people doing work (that I know of) with much of our data. The biggest user of our data is probably Chris Taggart at Openly Local – I actually built an API (and extended the functionality of our existing councillor and committees system) to make it easier to republish. To be honest, unless I know the person and they actually told me, I doubt I’d actually know what was going on!

What do you plan to do next – and why?

Because of the problems stated before, we’ve got together with ScraperWiki to organise a Hacks and Hackers day on the 11th November, which will hopefully encourage developers and journalists to do something with our data, and also put the wheels in motion for organising a data-based community, which means that once someone does something with our data, we’re more likely to know about it!

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