The building blocks of data infrastructure – Part 2

This is the second part of a two part post looking at the building blocks of data infrastructure. In part one we looked at definitions of data infrastructure, and the first set of building blocks: identifiers, standards and registers. You should read part one first and then jump back in here.

We’re using the example of weather data to help us think through the different elements of a data infrastructure. In our fictional system we have a network of weather stations installed around the world. The stations are feeding weather observations into a common database. We’ve looked at why its necessary to identify our stations, the role of standards, and the benefits of building registers to help us manage the system.

Technology

Technology is obviously part of data infrastructure. In part one we have already introduced several types of technology.

The sensors and components that are used to build the weather stations are also technologies.

The data standards that define how we organise and exchange data are technologies.

The protocols that help us transmit data, like WiFi or telecommunications networks, are technologies.

The APIs that are used to submit data to the global database of observations, or which help us retrieve observations from it, are also technologies.

Unfortunately, I often see some mistaken assumptions that data infrastructure is only about the technologies we use to help us manage and exchange data.

To use an analogy, this is a bit like focusing on tarmac and kerb stones as the defining characteristics of our road infrastructure. These materials are both important and necessary, but are just parts of a larger system. If we focus only on technology it’s easy to overlook the other, more important buildings blocks of data infrastructure.

We should be really clear when we are talking about “data infrastructure”, which encompasses all the building blocks we are discussing here and when we are talking about “infrastructure for data” which focuses just on the technologies we use to collect and manage data.

Technologies evolve and become obsolete. Over time we might choose to use different technologies in our data infrastructure.

What’s important is choosing technologies that ensure our data infrastructure is as reliable, sustainable and as open as possible.

Organisations

Our data infrastructure is taking shape. We now have a system that consists of weather stations installed around the world, reporting local weather observations into a central database. That dataset is the primary data asset that we will be publishing from our data infrastructure.

We’ve explored the various technologies, data standards and some of the other data assets (registers) that enable the collection and publishing of that data.

We’ve not yet considered the organisations that maintain and govern those assets.

The weather stations themselves will be manufactured and installed by many different organisations around the world. Other organisations might offer services to help maintain and calibrate stations after they are installed.

A National Meteorological Service might take on responsibility for maintaining the network of stations within it’s nation’s borders. The scope of their role will be defined by national legislation and policies. But a commercial organisation might also choose to take on responsibility for running a collection of stations.

In our data infrastructure, the central database of observations will be curated and managed by a single organisation. The (fictional) Global Weather Office. Our Global Weather Office will do more than just manage data assets. It also has a role to play in choosing and defining the data standards that support data collection. And it helps to certify which models of weather station conform to those standards.

Organisations are a key building block of data infrastructure. The organisational models that we choose to govern a data infrastructure and which take responsibility for its sustainability, are an important part of its design.

The value of the weather observations comes from their use. E.g. as input into predictive models to create weather forecasts and other services. Many organisations will use the observation data provided by our data infrastructure to create a range of products and services. E.g. national weather forecasts, or targeted advice for farmers that is delivered via farm management systems. The data might also be used by researchers. Or by environmental policy-makers to inform their work.

Mapping out the ecosystem of organisations that operate and benefit from our data infrastructure will help us to understand the roles and responsibilities of each organisation. It will also help clarify how and where value is being created.

Guidance and Policies

With so many different organisations operating, governing and benefiting from our data infrastructure we need to think about how they are supported in creating value from it.

To do this we will need to produce a range of guidance and policies, for example:

  • Documentation for all of the data assets that helps to put them in context, allowing them to be successfully used to create products and services. This might include notes on how we have collected our data, the standards used, and locations of our stations.
  • Recommendations for how data should be processed and interpreted to ensure that weather forecasts that use the data are reliable and safe
  • Licences that define how the data assets can be used
  • Documentation that describes the data governance processes that are applied to the data assets
  • Policies that define how organisations gain access to the data infrastructure, e.g. to start supplying data from new stations
  • Policies that decide how, when and where new stations might be added to the global network, to ensure that global coverage is maintained
  • Procurement policies that define how stations and the services that relate to them purchased
  • National regulations that apply to manufacture of weather stations, or that set safety standards that apply when they are installed or serviced
  • …etc

Guidance and policies are an important building block that help to shape the ecosystem that supports and benefits from our data infrastructure.

A strong data infrastructure will have policies and governance that will support equitable access to the system. Making infrastructure as open as possible will help to ensure that as many organisations as possible have the opportunity to use the assets it provides, and have equal opportunities to contribute to its operation.

Community

Why do we collect weather data? We do it to help create weather forecasts, monitor climate change and a whole host of other reasons. We want the data to be used to make decisions.

Many different people and organisations might benefit from the weather data we are providing. A commuter might just want to know whether to take an umbrella to work. A farmer might want help in choosing which crops to plant. Or an engineer planning a difficult construction task made need to know the expected weather conditions.

Outside of the organisations who are directly interacting with our data infrastructure there will be a number of communities, made up of both individuals and organisations who will benefit from the products and services made with the data assets it provides. Communities are the final building block of our data infrastructure.

These communities will be relying on our data infrastructure to plan their daily lives, activities and to make business decisions. But they may not realise it. Good infrastructure is boring and reliable.

In his book on the social value of infrastructure, Brett Frischmann refers to infrastructure as “shared means to many ends”. Governing and maintaining infrastructure requires us to recognise this variety of interests and make choices that balances a variety of needs. 

The choices we make about who has access to our data infrastructure, and how it will be made sustainable, will be important in ensuring that value can be created from it over the long-term.

Reviewing our building blocks

To summarise, our building blocks of data infrastructure are:

  • Identifiers
  • Standards
  • Registers
  • Technology, of various kinds
  • Organisations, who create, maintain, govern and use our infrastructure
  • Guidance and Policies that inform is use
  • Communities who are impacted or are affected by it

The building blocks have different sizes. Identifiers are a well-understood technical concept. Organisations, policies and communities are more complex, and perhaps less well-defined.

Understanding their relationships, and how they benefit from being more open, requires us to engage in some systems thinking. By identifying each building block I hope we can start to have deeper conversations about the systems we are building.

Over time we might be able to tease out more specific building blocks. We might be able to identify important organisational roles that occur as repeated patterns across different types of infrastructure. Or specific organisational models that have been found to be successful in creating trusted, sustainable infrastructures. Over time we might also identify key types of policy and guidance that are important elements of ensuring that a data infrastructure is successful. These are research questions that can help us refine our understanding of data as infrastructure.

There are other aspects of data infrastructure which we have not explicitly explored here. For example ethics and trust. This is because ethics is not a building block. It’s a way of working that will enable fairer, equitable access to data infrastructure by a variety of communities. Ethics should inform every decision and every activity we take to design, build and maintain our data infrastructure.

Trust is also not a building block. Trust emerges from how we operate and maintain our data infrastructures. Trust is earned, rather than designed into a system.

Help me make this better

I’ve written these posts to help me work through some of my thoughts around data infrastructure. There’s a lot more to be said about the different building blocks. And choosing other examples, e.g. that focus on data infrastructure that involves sharing of personal data like medical records, might better highlight some different characteristics.

Let me know what you think of this breakdown. Is it useful? Do you think I’ve missed some building blocks? Leave a comment or tweet me your thoughts.

Thanks to Peter Wells and Jeni Tennison for feedback and suggestions that have helped me write these posts.

The building blocks of data infrastructure – Part 1

Data is a vital form of infrastructure for our societies and our economies. When we think about infrastructure we usually think of physical things like roads and railways.

But there are broader definitions of infrastructure that include less tangible things. Like ideas or the internet.

It is important to recognise that there is more to “infrastructure” than just roads and railways. Otherwise there is a risk that we, as a society, won’t invest the necessary time or effort in building, maintaining and governing that infrastructure. The decisions we make about Infrastructure are important because infrastructure helps to shape our societies.

To help explore the idea of data as infrastructure, I want to look at the various building blocks that make up a specific example of a data infrastructure. My hope is that this will help to make it clearer that “data infrastructure” is about more than just technology. As we will see the technical infrastructure we use to manage data is just one component of data infrastructure.

The example we will use is greatly simplified and is partly fictionalised, but it is essentially a real example: we’re going to look at weather data infrastructure.

I’ve written about weather data infrastructure before. It’s a really interesting example to explore in this context because:

  • it’s easy to understand the value of collecting weather data
  • it’s a complex enough example to help dig into some real-world issues
  • It illustrates how data that is collected and used locally or nationally can also be part of a global data infrastructure

Weather data is usually open data, or at least public. But the building blocks we will outline here apply equally well to data from across the data spectrum. In a follow-up post I may explore a more complex example that illustrates a different type of data infrastructure, e.g. one for medical research that relies on researchers having access to medical records.

In the following sections we’ll look at the different building blocks that are important in building a global weather data infrastructure. The real infrastructure is much more complex.

Some of the building blocks are a bit fuzzy and have multiple roles to play in our infrastructure. But that’s fine. The world isn’t a neat and tidy place that we can always reduce to simpler components.

A definition of data infrastructure

Before we begin, let’s introduce a definition of data infrastructure:

A data infrastructure consists of data assets, the standards and technologies that are used to curate and provide access to those assets, the guidance and policies that inform their use and management, the organisations that govern the data infrastructure, and the communities involved in maintaining it, or are impacted by decisions that are made using those data assets.

There are a lot of moving parts there. And there are lots of things to say about each of them. For now let’s focus on the individual building blocks to explore ways in which they fit together.

Identifiers

Imagine we’re planning to build a global network of weather stations. Each station will be regularly recording the local temperature and rainfall. In our system we’ll be collecting all of these readings into a global dataset of weather observations.

So that we know which observations have been reported by which weather station, we need a unique reference for each of them.

We can’t just use the name of the town or village in which the station has been installed as that reference. There are Birminghams in both the UK and the US, for example. We might also need to move and reinstall weather stations over time, but may need to track information about them, such as when they were installed or services. So we need a global identifier that is more reliable than just a name.

By assigning each weather station a unique identifier, we can then attached additional data to it. Like it’s current location. We can also associate the identifier with every temperature and rainfall observation, so that we know which station reported that data.

Identifiers are the first building block of our data infrastructure.

Identifiers are deceptively simple. They’re just a number or a code, right? But there’s a lot to say about them, such as how they are assigned or are formatted. It can be hard to create good identifiers.

When identifiers are open, for anyone to use in their data, they have a role to play that goes beyond just providing unique references in a database. They can also help to create network effects that encourage publication of additional data.

Standards, part 1

Our weather stations are recording temperature and rainfall. We’ll measure temperature in degrees Centigrade and rainfall in millimetres. Both of these are standard units of measurement.

Standards are our second building block.

Standards are documented, reusable agreements. They help us collect and organise data in consistent ways, and make it easier to work with data from different sources.

Some standards, like units of measurement are global and are used in many different ways. But some standard might be only be relevant to specific communities or systems.

In our weather data infrastructure, we will need to standardise some other aspects of how we plan to collect weather data.

For example, let’s assume that our weather stations are recording data every half an hour. Every thirty minutes a station will record a new temperature reading. But is it recording the temperature at that specific moment in time, or should it report the average temperature over the last thirty minutes? There may be advantages in doing one or the other.

If we don’t standardise some of our data collection practices, then weather stations created by different manufacturers might record data differently. This will affect the quality of our data.  

Standards, part 2

Every data infrastructure will rely on a wide variety of different standards. Some standards support consistent measurement and data collection. Others help us to exchange data more effectively.

Our weather stations will need to record the data they collect and automatically upload it to a service that helps us build our global database. In a real system there are a number of different ways in which we might want a weather station to report data, to provide a variety of ways in which it could be aggregated and reused. But to simplify things, we’ll assume they just upload their data to a centralised service. Centralised data collection is problematic for a number of reasons, but that’s a topic for another article.

To help us define how the weather stations will upload their data we will need to pick a standard data format that will define the syntax for recording data in a machine-readable form. Let’s assume that we decide to use a simple CSV (comma-separated values) format.

Each station will produce a CSV file that contains one row for every half-hourly observation. Each row will consist of a station identifier, a time stamp for the recordings, a temperate reading and a rainfall reading.

The time stamps can be recorded using ISO 8601, which is an international standard for formatting dates and times. Helpfully we can include time zones, which will be essential for reporting time accurately across our global network of weather stations.

We also need to ensure that the order in which the four fields will be reported is consistent, or that the headers in the CSV file clearly identify what is contained in each column. Again, we might be using weather stations from multiple manufacturers and need data to be recorded consistently. Some stations might also include additional sensors, e.g. to record wind speed. So ideally our standard will be extensible to support that additional data. Taking time to design and standardise our CSV format will make data aggregation easier.

Every time we define how to collect, manage or share data within a system, we are creating agreements that will help ensure that everyone involved in those processes can be sure that those tasks are carried out in consistent ways. When we reuse existing standards, rather than creating bespoke versions, we can benefit from the work of thousands of different specialists across a variety of industries.

Sometimes though we do need to define a new standard, like the order of the columns in our specific type of CSV file. But where possible we should approach this by building on existing standards as much as possible.

Registers

To help us manage our network of weather stations it will be useful to record where each of them has been installed. It would also be helpful to record when they were installed. Then we can figure out when they might need to be re-calibrated or replaced and send some out to do the necessary work.

To do this, we can create a dataset, that lists the identifier, location, model and installation date of every weather station.

This type of dataset a register.

Registers are lists of important data. They have multiple uses, but are most frequently used to help us improve the quality of our data reporting.

For example we can use the above register to confirm that we’re regularly receiving data from every station on the network. When a station is installed it will need to get added to the register. We might give the company installing the station permission to do that, to help us maintain the register.

We can also use the register to determine if we have a good geographic spread of stations, to help us assess and improve the coverage and quality of the observations we’re collecting. The register is also useful for anyone using our global dataset so they can see how the dataset has been collected over time. Registers should be as open as possible.

There are other types of register that might be useful for governing our data infrastructure. For example we might create a register that lists all of the models of weather station that have been certified to comply with our preferred data standards.

We can use that register to help us make decisions about how to replace stations when they fail. A register can also help provide an incentive for the manufacturers of weather stations to conform to our chosen standards. If they’re not on the list, then we might not buy their products.

In Part 2 of this post we’ll look at others aspects of data infrastructure, including technology, organisations and policies. Thanks to Peter Wells and Jeni Tennison for feedback and suggestions that have helped me write these posts.

When are open (geospatial) identifiers useful?

In a meeting today, I was discussing how and when open geospatial identifiers are useful. I thought this might make a good topic for a blog post in my continuing series of questions about data. So here goes.

An identifier provides an unambiguous reference for something about which we want to collect and publish data. That thing might be a road, a school, a parcel of land or a bus stop.

If we publish a dataset that contains some data about “Westminster” then, without some additional documentation, a user of that dataset won’t know whether the data is about a tube station, the Parliamentary Constituency, a company based in Hayes or a school.

If we have identifiers for all of those different things, then we can use the identifiers in our data. This lets us be confident that we are talking about the same things. Publishing data about “940GZZLUWSM” makes it pretty clear that we’re referring to a specific tube station.

If data publishers use the same sets of identifiers, then we can start to easily combine your dataset on the wheelchair accessibility of tube stations, with my dataset of tube station locations and Transport for London’s transit data. So we can build an application that will help people in wheelchairs make better decisions about how to move around London.

Helpful services

To help us publish datasets that use the same identifiers, there are a few things that we repeatedly need to do.

For example it’s common to have to lookup an identifier based on the name of the thing we’re describing. E.g. what’s the code for Westminster tube station? We often need to find information about an identifier we’ve found in a dataset. E.g. what’s the name of the tube station identified by 940GZZLUWSM? And where is it?

When we’re working with geospatial data we often need to find identifiers based on a physical location. For example, based on a latitude and longitude:

  • Where is the nearest tube station?
  • Or, what polling district am I in, so I can find out where I should go to vote?
  • Or, what is the identifier for the parcel of land that contains these co-ordinates?
  • …etc

It can be helpful if these repeated tasks are turned into specialised services (APIs) that make it easier to perform them on-demand. The alternative is that we all have to download and index the necessary datasets ourselves.

Network effects

Choosing which identifiers to use in a dataset is an important part of creating agreements around how we publish data. We call those agreements data standards.

The more datasets that use the same set of identifiers, the easier it becomes to combine those datasets together, in various combinations that will help to solve a range of problems. To put it another way, using common identifiers helps to generate network effects that make it easier for everyone to publish and use data.

I think it’s true to say that almost every problem that we might try and solve with better use of data requires the combination of several different datasets. Some of those datasets might come from the private sector. Some of them might come from the public sector. No single organisation always holds all of the data.

This makes it important to be able to share and reuse identifiers across different organisations. And that is why it is important that those identifiers are published under an open licence.

Open licensing

Open licences allow anyone to access, use and share data. Openly licensed identifiers can be used in both open datasets and those that are shared under more restrictive licences. They give data publishers the freedom to choose the correct licence for their dataset, so that it sits at the right point on the data spectrum.

Identifiers that are not published under an open licence remove that choice. Restricted licensing limits the ability of publishers to share their data in the way that makes sense for their business model or application. Restrictive licences cause friction that gets in the way of making data as open as possible.

Open identifiers create open ecosystems. They create opportunities for a variety of business models, products and services. For example intermediaries can create platforms that aggregate and distribute data that has been published by a variety of different organisations.

So, the best identifiers are those that are

  • published under an open licence that allows anyone to access, use and share them
  • published alongside some basic metadata (a label, a location or other geospatial data, a type)
  • and, are accessible via services that allow them to be easily used

Who provides that infrastructure?

Whenever there is friction around the use of data, application developers are left with a difficult choice. They either have to invest time and effort in working around that friction, or compromise their plans in some way. The need to quickly bring products to market may lead to choices which are not ideal.

For example, developers may choose to build applications against Google’s mapping services. These services are easily and immediately available for anyone developer wanting to display a map or recommend a route to a user. But these platforms usually have restricted licensing that means it is usually the platform provider that reaps the most benefits. In the absence of open licences, network effects can lead to data monopolies.

So who should provide these open identifiers, and the metadata and services that support them?

This is the role of national mapping agencies. These agencies will already have identifiers for important geospatial features. The Ordnance Survey has an identifier called a TOID which is assigned to every feature in Great Britain. But there are other identifiers in use too. Some are designed to support publication of specific types of data, e.g. UPRNs.

These identifiers are national assets. They should be managed as data infrastructure and not be tied up in commercial data products.

Publishing these identifiers under an open licence, in the ways that have been outlined here, will provide a framework to support the collection and curation of geospatial data by many  different organisations, across the public and private sector. That infrastructure will allow value to be created from that geospatial data in a variety of new ways.

Provision of this type of infrastructure is also in-line with what we can see happening across other parts of government. For example the work of the GDS team to develop registers of important data. Identifiers, registers and standards are important building blocks of our local, national and global data infrastructure.

If you’re interested in reading more about the benefits of open identifiers, then you might be interested in this white paper that I wrote with colleagues from the Open Data Institute and Thomson Reuters: “Creating value from identifiers in an open data world

Data assets and data products

A lot of the work that we’ve done at the ODI over the last few years has involved helping organisations to recognise their data assets.

Many organisations will have their IT equipment and maybe even their desks and chairs asset tagged. They know who is using them, where they are, and have some kind of plan to make sure that they only invest in maintaining the assets they really need. But few will be treating data in the same way.

That’s a change that is only just beginning. Part of the shift is in understanding how those assets can be used to solve problems. Or help them, their partners and customers to make more informed decisions.

Often that means sharing or opening that data so that others can use it. Making sure that data is at the right point of the data spectrum helps to unlock its value.

A sticking point for many organisations is that they begin to question why they should share or open those data assets, and whether others should contribute to their maintenance. There are many commons questions around the value of sharing, respecting privacy, logistics, etc.

I think a useful framing for this type of discussion might be to distinguish between data assets and data products.

A data asset is what an organisation is managing internally. It may be shared with a limited audience.

A data product is what you share with or open to a wider audience. Its created from one or more data assets. A data product may not contain all of the same data as the data assets it’s based on. Personal data might need to be removed or anonymised for example. This means a data product might sit at a different point in the data spectrum. It can be more open. I’m using data product here to refer to specific types of datasets, not “applications that have been made using data”

An asset is something you manage and invest in. A product is intended to address some specific needs. It may need some support or documentation to make sure it’s useful. It may also need to evolve based on changing needs.

In some cases a data asset could also be a data product. The complete dataset might be published in its entirety. In my experience this is often rarely the case though. There’s usually additional information, e.g governance and version history, that might not be useful to reusers.

In others cases data assets are collaboratively maintained, often in the open. Wikidata and OpenStreetMap are global data assets that are maintained in this way. There are many organisations that are using those assets to create more tailored data products that help to meet specific needs. Over time I expect more data assets will be managed in collaborative ways.

Obviously not every open data release needs to be a fully supported “product”. To meet transparency goals we often just need to get data published as soon as possible, with a minimum of friction for both publishers and users.

But when we are using data as tool to create other types of impact, more work is sometimes needed. There are often a number of social, legal and technical issues to consider in making data accessible in a sustainable way.

By injecting some product thinking into how we share and open data it might be helpful in addressing the types of problems that can contribute to data releases not having the desired impact: Why are we opening this data? Who will use it? How can we help them be more effective? Does releasing the data provide ways in which the data asset might be more collaboratively maintained?

When governments are publishing data that should be part of a national data infrastructure, more value will be unlocked if more of the underlying data assets are available for anyone to access, use and share. Releasing a “data product” that is too closely targeted might limit its utility.  So I also think this “data asset” vs “data product” distinction can help us to challenge the types data that are being released. Are we getting access to the most valuable data assets or useful subsets of them. Or are we just being given a data product that has much more limited applications, regardless of how well it is being published?

The Lego Analogy

I think Lego is a great analogy for understanding the importance of data standards and registers.

Lego have been making plastic toys and bricks since the late 40s. It took them a little while to perfect their designs. But since 1958 they’ve been manufacturing bricks in the same way, to the same basic standard. This means that you can take any brick that’s been manufactured over the last 59 years and they’ll fit together. As a company, they have extremely high standards around how their bricks are manufactured. Only 18 in a million are ever rejected.

A commitment to standards maximises the utility of all of the bricks that the company has ever produced.

Open data standards apply the same principle but to data. By publishing data using common APIs, formats and schemas, we can start to treat data like Lego bricks. Standards help us recombine data in many, many different ways.

There are now many more types and shapes of Lego brick than there used to be. The Lego standard colour palette has also evolved over the years. The types and colours of bricks have changed to reflect the company’s desire to create a wider variety of sets and themes.

If you look across all of the different sets that Lego have produced, you can see that some basic pieces are used very frequently. A number of these pieces are “plates” that help to connect other bricks together. If you ask a Master Lego Builder for a list of their favourite pieces, you’ll discover the same. Elements that help you connect other bricks together in new and interesting ways are the most popular.

Registers are small, simple datasets that play the same role in the data ecosystem. They provide a means for us to connect datasets together. A way to improve the quality and structure of other datasets. They may not be the most excitingly shaped data. Sometimes they’re just simple lists and tables. But they play a very important role in unlocking the value of other data.

So there we have it, the Lego analogy for standards and registers.

Under construction

It’s been a while since I posted a more personal update here. But, as I announced this morning, I’ve got a new job! I thought I’d write a quick overview of what I’ll be doing and what I hope to achieve.

I’ve been considering giving up freelancing for a while now. I’ve been doing it on and off since 2012 when I left Talis. Freelancing has given me a huge amount of flexibility to take on a mixture of different projects. Looking back, there’s a lot of projects I’m really proud of. I’ve worked with the Ordnance Survey, the British Library and the Barbican. I helped launch a startup which is now celebrating its fifth birthday. And I’ve had far too much fun working with the ONS Digital team.

I’ve also been able to devote time to helping lead a plucky band of civic hackers in Bath. We’ve run free training courses, built an energy-saving application for schools and mapped the city. Amongst many other things.

I’ve spent a significant amount of time over the last few years working with the Open Data Institute. The ODI is five and I think I’ve been involved with the organisation for around 4.5 years. Mostly as a part-time associate, but also for a year or so as a consultant. It turned out that wasn’t quite the right role for me, hence the recent dive back into freelancing.

But over that time, I’ve had the opportunity to work on a similarly wide-ranging set of projects. I’ve researched how election data is collected and used and learnt about weather data. I’ve helped to create guidance around open identifiers, licensing, and open data policies.  And explored ways to direct organisations on their open data journey. I’ve also provided advice and support to startups, government and multi-national organisations. That’s pretty cool.

I’ve also worked with an amazing set of people. Some of those people are still at the ODI and others have now moved on. I’ve learnt loads from all of them.

I was pretty clear what type of work I wanted to do in a more permanent role. Firstly, I wanted to take on bigger projects. There’s only so much you can do as an independent freelancer. Secondly, I wanted to work on “data infrastructure”. While collectively we’ve only just begun thinking through the idea of data as infrastructure, looking back over my career it’s a useful label for the types of work I’ve been doing. The majority of which has involved looking at applications of data, technology, standards and processes.

I realised that the best place for me to do all of that was at the ODI. So I’ve seized the opportunity to jump back into the organisation.

My new job title is “Data Infrastructure Programme Lead”. In practice this means that I’m going to be:

  • helping to develop the ODI’s programme of work around data infrastructure, including the creation of research, standards, guidance and tools that will support the creation of good data infrastructure
  • taking on product ownership for certificates and pathway, so we’ve got a way to measure good data infrastructure
  • working with the ODI’s partners and network to support them in building stronger data infrastructure
  • building relationships with others who are working on building data infrastructure in public and private sector, so we can learn from one another

And no doubt, a whole lot of other things besides!

I’ll be working closely with Peter and Olivier, as my role should complement theirs. And I’m looking forward to spending more time with the rest of the ODI team, so I can find ways to support and learn more from them all.

My immediate priorities will be are working on standards and tools to help build data infrastructure in the physical activity sector, through the OpenActive project. And leading on projects looking at how to build better standards and how to develop collaborative registers.

I’m genuinely excited about the opportunities we have for improving the publication and use of data on the web. It’s a topic that continues to occupy a lot of my attention. For example, I’m keen to see whether we can build a design manual for data infrastructure. Or improve governance around data through analysing existing sources. Or whether mapping data ecosystems and diagramming data flows can help us understand what makes a good data infrastructure. And a million other things. It’s also probably time we started to recognise and invest in the building blocks for data infrastructure that we’ve already built.

If you’re interesting in talking about data infrastructure, then I’d love to hear from you. You can reach me on twitter or email.

We can strengthen data infrastructure by analysing open data

Data is infrastructure for our society and businesses. To create stronger, sustainable data infrastructure that supports a variety of users and uses, we need to build it in a principled way.

Over time, as we gain experience with a variety of infrastructures supporting both shared and open data, we can identify the common elements of good data infrastructure. We can use that to help to write a design manual for data infrastructure.

There a variety of ways to approach that task. We can write case studies on specific projects, and we can map ecosystems to understand how value is created through data. We can also take time to contribute to projects. Experiencing different types of governance, following processes and using tools can provide useful insight.

We can also analyse open data to look for additional insights that might help use improve data infrastructure. I’ve recently been involved in two short projects that have analysed some existing open data.

Exploring open data quality

Working with Experian and colleagues at the ODI, we looked at the quality of some UK government datasets. We used a data quality tool to analyse data from the Land Registry, the NHS and Companies House. We found issues with each of the datasets.

It’s clear that there’s is still plenty of scope to make basic improvements to how data is published, by providing:

  • better guidance on the structure, content and licensing of data
  • basic data models and machine-readable schemas to help standardise approaches to sharing similar data
  • better tooling to help reconcile data against authoritative registers

The UK is also still in need of a national open address register.

Open data quality is a current topic in the open data community. The community might benefit from access to an “open data quality index” that provides more detail into these issues. Open data certificates would be an important part of that index. The tools used to generate that index could also be used on shared datasets. The results could be open, even if the datasets themselves might not be.

Exploring the evolution of data

There are currently plans to further improve the data infrastructure that supports academic research by standardising organisation identifiers. I’ve been doing some R&D work for that project to analyse several different shared and open datasets of organisation identifiers. By collecting and indexing the data, we’ve been able to assess how well they can support improving existing data, through automated reconciliation and by creating better data entry tools for users.

Increasingly, when we are building new data infrastructures, we are building on and linking together existing datasets. So it’s important to have a good understanding of the scope, coverage and governance of the source data we are using. Access to regularly published data gives us an opportunity to explore the dynamics around the management of those sources.

For example, I’ve explored the growth of the GRID organisational identifiers.

This type of analysis can help assess the level of investment required to maintain different types of dataset and registers. The type of governance we decide to put around data will have a big impact on the technology and processes that need to be created to maintain it. A collaborative, user maintained register will operate very differently to one that is managed by a single authority.

One final area in which I hope the community can begin to draw together some insight is around how data is used. At present there are no standards to guide the collection and reporting on metrics for the usage of either shared or open data. Publishing open data about how data is used could be extremely useful not just in understanding data infrastructure, but also in providing transparency about when and how data is being used.