Science Interviews

Interview

Sun, 23rd Nov 2008

Quest for the Best Public Information Website

Chris Vallance

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Meera - I’m in London with our resident tech expert, Chris Vallance. Chris, we haven’t heard from you in a while, how have you been?

Chris V: I’ve been fine. I’ve been checking out a few government competitions.

Meera - Government competitions that could help us find a loo when out on the town, is that right?

Chris V: Yes. It’s that age-old problem. You’re running round town and you just can’t find a public loo. Believe it or not that kind of information is public data. It’s public information. Often public information can either be quite dull – you have to look through tables of stuff – or it can be really hard to find. A group called the Power of Information Task Force, which is a government set up group, ran a competition. If you like, it’s an X-factor for government information. What they did was invited the public to come up with new information services, new ways of displaying government data and got the public to vote on the suggestions they liked best. The short list contains some pretty interesting suggestions. First of all there was the Loo-Finder which was a service which would enable you to find a public toilet near you. There was the location of postboxes. Another thing that would show you the location of cycle paths and something else that would show you school catchment areas. I think that’s quite an interesting thing because you’d think it would be easy to find out where your school catchment area is. In fact it’s surprisingly hard. There were a few suggestions that didn’t make the cut into the final as well. A particular favourite of mine was one called Babyblob which would show you the average weight of babies born in a particular part of the country. I don’t know why! It looked like a really fun idea. Lots of interesting ideas but it’s those five that are going to get some development funding. You’re likely to see those actually becoming reality in a while.

Meera - With some of those, like you say, the catchment areas and also the one that shows you cycle paths: you’d think they would already be available.

Chris V: I think that’s one of the issues coming out of this. It does show how much public information of a quite basic sort can be quite hard to find. That’s a question I put to the Cabinet Office minister responsible for the competition, Tom Watson. I asked if, basically, wasn’t this an admission that public information hadn’t been easy to get hold of.

Tom Watson: I think it’s an admission that in the modern age there’s been a huge increase in capacity to process data, even in the last few years. I f you look when the government were elected in 1997 10% of people had heard of a thing called the internet. Now 2/3 of us have broadband connections. We’re much more used to crunching up data, doing clever things with information. The mash-up community out there are leading the way  on this and I think it’s entirely appropriate that the government talk to them, learn from their skills, their cutting-edge design ideas and turn it into good public services that people want.

Chris V: That was Cabinet Office minister Tom Watson.

Meera - Who was the winner of this competition?

Chris V: Well, I didn’t give it away earlier. Astute listeners may have noticed I only mentioned four of the shortlisted five. That’s because the actual winner was one of the shortlisted ones. It was called Can I Recycle It? The idea is that you would type in your recycle signpostcode. If you’ve got something and you don’t know where you can recycle it this website will tell you the answer, hopefully. It’s all created by a trainee barrister, a chap called Adam Temple. He told me about why he came up with this idea.

Adam Temple: When I wanted to throw something away myself and didn’t know whether to recycle it or not my own council’s website wouldn’t tell me. I wanted a website that would tell you specifically, for any individual piece of rubbish, whether you could recycle it or not.

Chris V: And that was Adam Temple, whose idea ‘Can I Recycle It?’ was the overall winner of the government’s ‘Show us a way’ competition.

Meera - Thanks to things like this competition is this an area that the government is increasingly becoming interested in then?

Chris V: I think very much so. We’re sat here outside the coffee shop in central London. I could get my phone out and look up the postcode we’re in. I could plug that in and find out who the local MP is through a site called ‘they work for you.’ I could find out if there was something wrong with the pavements I could complain about it through a site called ‘fix my street.’ These are all sites created by third parties. The government itself is very interested in harnessing some of this technology. There was recently a big conference that brought together people from government departments. It brought together media and academic departments and net visionaries, if you like, working in this space. It was called the eDemocracy conference. It was chaired by Dan Jellinek, a journalist and writer on government’s use of IT. I spoke to Dan and asked him what government departments are actually doing it by way of using this new technology.

Dan - Well they are beginning to cotton on. They’ve noticed and have started to hear about sites like Facebook and initially Whitehall being Whitehall and quite conservative they haven’t really felt happy engaging with these places. They’ve begun to notice that the numbers of people using them are very large. These are people that they do need to reach. For example, if there’s an online community with lots of mothers on it. There may be 15,000 or 20,000 mothers all talking about something the government wants to give advice on; if all those people were in one physical place like a football stadium for a big event the government would want to be there. They’d want to have a little stand giving out leaflets. So, if they’re all on the internet the government should go there and get involved where those people actually are.

Chris V: That was Dan Jellinek. I think this is going to be a growth area. We’re going to see more of this kind of interactive tool in the coming years, people realising how much data’s out there. It won’t just be about finding the nearest available public toilet.

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