Posts Tagged ‘spending’
I took a very frustrating phone call earlier today from NESTA, an organisation I’ve not had any dealings with it before, and don’t actually have a view about it, or at least didn’t.
It followed from an email I’d received a couple of days earlier, which read:
I am contacting you about a project NESTA are currently working on in partnership with the Big Society Network called Your Local Budget.
Working with 10 pioneer local authorities, we are looking at how you can use participatory budgeting to develop new ways to give people a say in how mainstream local budgets are spent. Alongside this we will also be developing an online platform that enables members of the public to understand and scrutinise their local authority’s spending, and connect with each other to generate ideas for delivering better value for money in public spending.
We would like to share our thinking and get your thoughts on the online tool to get a sense of what is needed and where we can add value. You are invited to a round table discussion on Friday 19 November, 11am – 12.30pm at NESTA that will be chaired by Philip Colligan, Executive Director of the Public Services Lab. Following the meeting we intend to issue an invitation to tender for the online tool.
Apart from the short notice & terrible timing (it clashes with the Open Government Data Camp, to which you’d hope most of the people involved would be going), the main question I had was this:
I got the phone call because I couldn’t make the round table, and for some feedback, and this was the feedback I gave: I don’t understand why this is being done. At all.
Putting aside the participatory budgeting part (although this problem seems to be getting dealt with by Redbridge council and YouGov, whose solution is apparently being offered to all councils), there’s the question of the “online platform that enables members of the public to understand and scrutinise their local authority’s spending, and connect with each other to generate ideas for delivering better value for money in public spending.“
Excuse me? Most of the data hasn’t been published yet, there are several known organisations and groups (including OpenlyLocal) that have publicly stated they going to to be importing this data and doing things with it – visualising it, and allowing different views and analysis. Additionally, OpenlyLocal is already talking with several newspaper groups to help them re-use the data, and we are constantly evolving how we match and present the data.
Despite this, Nesta seems to have decided that it’s going to spend public money on coming up with a tendered solution to solve a problem that may be solved for zero cost by the private sector. Now I’m no roll-back-the-government red-in-tooth-and-claw free marketeer, but this is crazy, and I said as much to the person from Nesta.
Is the roundtable to decide whether the project should be done, or what should be done? I asked. The latter I was told. So, they’ve got some money and have decided they’re going to spend it, even though the need may not be there. At a time when welfare payments are being cut, essential services are being slashed, for this sort of thing to happen is frankly outrageous.
There are other concerns here too – I personally think websites such as this are not suitable for a tender process, as that doesn’t encourage or often even allow the sort of agile, feedback-led process that produces the best websites. They also favour those who make their living by tendering.
So, Nesta, here’s a suggestion. Park this idea for 12 months, and in the meantime give the money back to the government. If you want to act as an angel funding then act as such (and the ones I’ve come across don’t do tendering). A reminder, your slogan is ‘making innovation flourish’, but sometimes that means stepping back and seeing what happens. This is not the way to building a Big Society
One of the most commonly quoted concerns about publishing public data on the web is the potential for fraud – and certainly the internet has opened up all sorts of new routes to fraud, from Nigerian email scams, to phishing for bank accounts logins, to key-loggers to indentity theft.
Many of these work using two factors – the acceptance of things at face value (if it looks like an email from your bank, it is an email from them), and flawed processes designed to stop fraud but which inconvenience real users while making life easy from criminals.
I mention this because of some pending advice from the Local Government Association to councils regarding the publication of spending data, which strikes me as not just flawed, but highly dangerous and an invitation to fraudsters.
The issue surrounds something that may seem almost trivial, but bear with me – it’s important, and it’s off such trivialities that fraudsters profit.
In the original guidance for councils on publishing spending data we said that councils should publish both their internal supplier IDs and the supplier VAT numbers, as it would greatly aid the matching of supplier names to real-world companies, charities and other organisations, which is crucial in understanding where a local council’s money goes.
When the Local Government Association published its Guidance For Practitioners it removed those recommendations in order to prevent fraud. It has also suggested using the internal supplier ID as a unique key to confirm supplier identity. This betrays a startling lack of understanding, and worse opens up a serious vector to allow criminals to defraud councils of large sums of money.
Let’s take the VAT numbers first. The main issue here appears to be so-called missing trader fraud, whereby VAT is fraudulently claimed back from governments. Now it’s not clear to me that by publishing VAT numbers for supplier names that this fraud is made easier, and you would think the Treasury who recommend publishing the VAT numbers for suppliers in their guidance (PDF) would be alert to this (I’m told they did check with HMRC before issuing their guidance).
However, that’s not the point. If it’s about matching VAT numbers to supplier names there’s already several routes for doing this, with the ability to retrieve tens of thousands of them in the space of an hour or so, including this one:
Click on that link and you’ll get something like this:
Whether you’re a programmer or not, you should be able to see that it’s a trivial matter to go through those thousands of results and extract the company name and VAT number, and bingo, you’ve got that which the LGA is so keen for you not to have. So those who are wanting to match council suppliers don’t get the help a VAT number would give, and fraudsters aren’t disadvantaged at all.
Now, let’s turn to the rather more serious issue of internal Supplier IDs. Let me make it clear here, when matching council or central government suppliers, internal Supplier IDs are useful, make the job easier, and the matching more accurate, and also help with understanding how much in total redacted payees are receiving (you’d be concerned if a redacted person/company received £100,000 over the course of a year, and without some form of supplier ID you won’t know that). However, it’s not some life-or-death battle over principle for me.
The reason the LGA, however, is advising councils not to publish them is much more serious, and dangerous. In short, they are proposing to use the internal Supplier ID as a key to confirm the suppliers identity, and so allow the supplier to change details, including the supplier bank account (the case brought up here to justify this was the recent one of South Lanarkshire, which didn’t involve any information published as open data, just plain old fraudster ingenuity).
Just think about that for a moment, and then imagine that it’s the internal ID number they use for you in connection with paying your housing benefits. If you want to change your details, say you wanted to pay the money into a different bank account, you’d have to quote it – and just how many of us would have somewhere both safe to keep it and easy to find (and what about when you separated from your partner).
Similarly, where and how do we really think suppliers are going to keep this ID (stuck on a post-it note to the accounts receivable’s computer screen?), and what happens when they lose it? How do they identify themselves to find out what it is, and how will a council go about issuing a new one should the old one be compromised – is there any way of doing this except by setting up a new supplier record, with all the problems that brings.
And how easy would it be to do a day or two’s temping in a council’s accounts department and do a dump/printout of all the Supplier IDs, and then pass them onto fraudsters. The possibilities – for criminals – are almost limitless, and the Information Commissioner’s Office should put a stop to this at once if it is not to lose a serious amount of credibility.
But there’s an bigger underlying issue here, and it’s not that organisations such as the LGA don’t get data (although that is a problem), it’s that such bodies think that by introducing processes they can engineer out all risk, and that leads to bad decisions. Tell someone that suppliers changing bank accounts is very rare and should always be treated with suspicion and fraud becomes more difficult; tell someone that they should accept internal supplier IDs as proof of identity and it becomes easy.
Government/big-company bureaucrats not only think like government/big-company bureaucrats, they build processes that assumes everyone else does. The problem is that that both makes more difficult for ordinary citizens (as most encounters with bureaucracy make clear), and also makes it easy for criminals (who by definition don’t follow the rules).
Since OpenlyLocal started pulling in council spending data, it’s niggled at me that it’s only half the story. Yes, as more and more data is published you’re beginning to get a much clearer idea of who’s paid what. And if councils publish it at a sufficient level of detail and consistently categorised, we’ll have a pretty good idea of what it’s spent on too.
However, useful though that is, that’s like taking a peak at a company’s bank statement and thinking it tells the whole story. Many of the payments relate to goods or services delivered some time in the past, some for things that have not yet been delivered, and there are all sorts of things (depreciation, movements between accounts, accruals for invoices not yet received) that won’t appear on there.
That’s what the council’s accounts are for — you know, those impenetrable things locked up in PDFs in some dusty corner of the council’s website, all sufficiently different from each other to make comparison difficult:
For some time, the holy grail for projects like OpenlyLocal and Where Does My Money Go has been to get the accounts in a standardized form to make comparison easy not just for accountants but for regular people too.
The thing is, such a thing does exist, and it’s sent by councils to central Government (the Department for Communities and Local Government to be precise) for them to use in their own figures. It’s a fairly hellishly complex spreadsheet called the Revenue Outturn form that must be filled in by the council (to get an idea have a look at the template here).
They’re not published anywhere by the DCLG, but they contain no state secrets or sensitive information; it’s just that the procedure being followed is the same one as they’ve always followed, and so they are not published, even after the statistics have been calculated from the data (the Statistics Act apparently prohibit publication until the stats have been published).
So I had an idea: wouldn’t it be great if we could pull the data that’s sitting in all these spreadsheets into a database and so allow comparison between councils’ accounts, thus freeing it from those forgotten corners of government computers.
This would seem to be a project that would be just about simple enough to be doable (though it’s trickier than it seems) and could allow ordinary people to understand their council’s spending in all sorts of ways (particularly if we add some of those sexy Where Does My Money Go visualisations). It could also be useful in ways that we can barely imagine – some of the participatory budget experiments going in on in Redbridge and other councils would be even more useful if the context of similar councils spending was added to the mix.
So how would this be funded. Well, the usual route would be for DCLG or perhaps the one of the Local Government Association bodies such as IDeA to scope out a proposal, involving many hours of meetings, reams of paper, and running up thousands of pounds in costs, even before it’s started.
They’d then put the process out to tender, involving many more thousands in admin, and designed to attract those companies who specialise in tendering for public sector work. Each of those would want to ensure they make a profit, and so would work out how they’re going to do it before quoting, running up their own costs, and inflating the final price.
So here’s part two of my plan, instead going down that route, I’d come up with a proposal that would:
- be a fraction of that cost
- be specified on a single sheet of paper
- paid for only if I delivered
Obviously there’s a clear potential conflict of interest here – I sit on the government’s Local Public Data Panel and am pushing strongly for open data, and also stand to benefit (depending on how good I am at getting the information out of those hundreds of spreadsheets, each with multiple worksheets, and matching the classification systems). The solution to that – I think – is to do the whole thing transparently, hence this blog post.
In a sense, what I’m proposing is that I scope out the project, solving those difficult problems of how to do it, with the bonus of instead of delivering a report, I deliver the project.
Is it a good thing to have all this data imported into a database, and shown not just on a website in a way non-accountants can understand, but also available to be combined with other data in mashups and visualisations? Definitely.
Is it a good deal for the taxpayer, and is this open procurement a useful way of doing things? Well you can read the proposal for yourself here, and I’d be really interested in comments both on the proposal and the novel procurement model.
Thanks to the incredible work of Francis Irving at WhatDoTheyKnow, we’ve now added a feature I’ve wanted on OpenlyLocal since we started imported the local spending data: one-click Freedom of Information requests on individual spending items, especially those large ones.
This further lowers the barriers to armchair auditors wanting to understand where the money goes, and the request even includes all the usual ‘boilerplate’ to help avoid specious refusals. I’ve started it off with one to Wandsworth, whose poor quality of spending data I discussed last week.
And this is the result, the whole process having taken less than a minute:
The requests are also being tagged. This means that in the near future you’ll be able to see on a transaction page if any requests have already been made about it, and the status of those requests (we’re just waiting for WDTK to implement search by tags), which will be the beginning of a highly interconnected transparency ecosystem.
In the meantime it’s worth checking the transaction hasn’t been requested before confirming your request on the WDTK page (there’s a link to recent requests for the council on the WDTK form you get to after pressing the button).
I’m also trusting the community will use this responsibly, digging out information on the big stuff, rather than firing off multiple requests to the same council for hundreds of individual items (which would in any case probably be deemed vexatious under the terms of the FoI Act). At the moment the feature’s only enabled on transactions over £10,000.
Good places to start would be those multi-million-pound monthly payments which indicate big outsourcing deals, or large redacted payments (Birmingham’s got a few). Have a look at the spending dashboard for your council and see if there are any such payments.
I had a fantastic response to the launch of OpenCharities – my little side project to open up the Charity Commission’s Register of Charities — from individuals, from organisations representing the third sector, and from charities themselves.
There were also a few questions:
- Could we pull out and expose via the api more info about the charities, especially the financial history?
- How often would OpenCharities be updated and what about new charities added after we’d scraped the register?
- Was there any possibility that we could add additional information from sources other than the Charity Register?
So, over the past week or so, we’ve been busy trying to answer those questions the best we could, mainly by just trying to get on and solve them.
First, additional info. After a terrifically illuminating meeting with Karl and David from NCVO, I had a much better idea of how the charity sector is structured, and what sort of information would be useful to people.
So the first thing I did was to rewrite the scraper and parser to pull in a lot more information, particularly the past 5 years income and spending and, for bigger charities the breakdown of that income and spending. (I also pulled in the remaining charities that had been missed the first time around, including removed charities.) Here’s what the NSPCC’s entry, for example, looks like now:
We are also now getting the list of trustees, and links to the accounts and Summary Information Returns, as there’s all sorts of goodness locked up in those PDFs.
However, while we running through the all these charities, we wondered if any of them had social networking info easily available (i.e. on their front page). It turns out some of the bigger ones did, and so we visited their sites and pulled out that info (it’s fairly easy to look for links for twitter/facebook/youtube etc on a home page). Here’s an example social networking info, again for the NSPCC.
[Incidentally, doing this threw up some errors in the Charity Register, most commonly websites that are listed as http://http://some.charity.org.uk, which in itself shows the benefit of opening up the data. All we need now is a way of communicating that to the Charity Commission.]
We also (after way too many hours wasted messing around with cookies and hidden form fields) figured out how to get the list of charities recently added, with the result that we can check every night for new charities added in the past 24 hours, and add those to the database.
This means not only can we keep OpenCharities up to date, it also means we can offer an RSS feed of the latest charities. And if that’s updated a bit too frequently for you (some days there are over 20 charities added), you can always restrict to a given search term, e.g http://OpenCharities/charities.rss?term=children for those charities with children in the title.
Finally, we’ve been looking at what other datasets we could link with the register, and I thought a good one might be the list of grants given out by the various National Lottery funding bodies (which fortunately had already been scraped by the very talented Julian Todd using ScraperWiki).
Then it was a fairly simple matter of tying together the recipients with the register, and voila, you have something like this:
Note, at the time of writing, the import and match of the data is still going on, but should be finished by the end of today.
We’ll also add some simple functionality to show payments from local councils that’s being published in the local council spending data. The information’s already in the database (and is actually shown on the OpenlyLocal page for the charity); I just haven’t got around to displaying it on OpenCharities yet. Expect that to appear in the next day or so.
As I mentioned in a previous post, OpenlyLocal has now started importing council local spending data to make it comparable across councils and linkable to suppliers. We now added some more councils, and some more features, with some interesting results.
As well as the original set of Greater London Authority, Windsor & Maidenhead and Richmond upon Thames, we’ve added data from Uttlesford, King’s Lynn & West Norfolk and Surrey County Council (incidentally, given the size of Uttlesford and of King’s Lynn & West Norfolk, if they publish this data, any council should be able to).
We’ve also added a basic Spending Dashboard, to give an overview of the data we’ve imported so far:
Of course the data provided is of variable quality and in various formats. Some, like King’s Lynn & Norfolk are in simple, clean CSV files. Uttlesford have done it as a spreadsheet with each payment broken down to the relevant service, which is a bit messy to import but adds greater granularity than pretty much any other council.
Others, like Surrey, have taken the data that should be in a CSV file and for no apparent reason have put it in a PDF, which can be converted, but which is a bit of a pain to do, and means maunal intervention to what should be a largely automatic process (challenge for journos/dirt-hunters: is there anything in the data that they’d want to hide, or is it just pig-headedness).
But now we’ve got all that information in there we can start to analyse it, play with it, and ask questions about it, and we’ve started off by showing a basic dashboard for each council.
For each council, it’s got total spend, spend per month, number of suppliers & transactions, biggest suppliers and biggest transactions. It’s also got the spend per month (where a figure is given for a quarter, or two-month period, we’ve averaged it out over the relevant months). Here, for example, is the one for the Greater London Authority:
Lots of interesting questions here, from getting to understand all those leasing costs paid via the Amas Ltd Common Receipts Account, to what the £4m paid to Jack Morton Worldwide (which describes itself as a ‘global brand experience agency’) was for. Of course you can click on the supplier name for details of the transactions and any info that we’ve got on them (in this case it’s been matched to a company – but you can now submit info about a company if we haven’t matched it up).
You can then click on the transaction to find out more info on it, if that info was published, but which is perhaps the start of an FoI request either way:
It’s also worth looking at the Spend By Month, as a raw sanity-check. Here’s the dashboard for Windsor & Maidenhead:
See that big gap for July & August 09. My first thought was that there was an error with importing the data, which is perfectly possible, especially when the formatting changes frequently as it does in W&M’s data files, but looking at the actual file, there appear to be no entries for July & August 09 (I’ve notified them and hopefully we’ve get corrected data published soon). This, for me, is one of the advantages of visualizations: being able to easily spot anomalies in the data, that looking at tables or databases wouldn’t show.
So what further analyses would you like out of the box: average transaction size, number of transactions over £1m, percentage of transactions for a round number (i.e. with a zero at the end), more visualizations? We’d love your suggestions – please leave them in the comments or tweet me.
Yesterday I was invited to a meeting at the Department for Communities and Local Government with the key players in the local spending/Spikes Cavell issue that I’ve written about previous (see The open data that isn’t and Update on the local spending data scandal… the empire strikes back).
The meeting included Luke Spikes from Spikes Cavell as well as Andrew Larner from IESE (the Regional Improvement and Efficiency Partnership for the South East), which helped set up the deal, as well as myself and Nigel Shadbolt, who chairs the Local Public Data Panel and sits on the government’s Transparency Board. I won’t go into all the details, but the meeting was cordial and constructive, produced a lot of information about how the deal works and also potentially made progress in terms of solving some of the key issues.
We can now, for example, start to understand the deal – it’s called the Transform project – which as I understand it is a package deal to take raw information from the councils accounts and other systems (e.g. purchase & procurement systems) to SC’s specification, clean up and depersonalise the data, then analyse to show the councils potential savings/improvements, and finally to publish a cut of this information on the Spotlight on Spend website. Essentially we have this:
There are still some details missing from this picture – we haven’t yet seen the Memorandum of Understanding which frames the deal, nor the specification of the raw information that is provided to Spikes Cavell, but we have been promised both of these imminently. This last one in particular will be very useful as it will allow us to refine the advice we are giving councils about the data they should be publishing in order to make the spending information useful and comparable (it’s not been suggested previously, for example, that it would be useful to include details from the council’s procurement systems, though in hindsight this makes a lot of sense).
Crucially, it was also agreed that all the input data into Spikes Cavell’s proprietary systems (the ‘Cleaned-up but non-proprietary data’ in the diagram above) would be published, so the wider community would be on the same footing as Spikes Cavell as far as access to the raw data goes. This is crucial and worth repeating: it means that anyone else will have access to the same base data as Spikes Cavell, and the playing field is therefore pretty much level.
There are still issues to be sorted out, the chief of which is that while Spikes Cavell is happy to publish the raw data under a completely open licence, they will require the OK of the council to do so. (However, armed with this knowledge it will be easy to identify those councils that refuse, and then possible to tackle them either through persuasion or ultimately legislation.)
The other issues are, briefly: liability for depersonalising the data; where the data is published (I think it should be on the council’s own website or a data.gov.uk, or for London councils the London Datastore, not on the Spotlight On Spend website); whether the Spotlight On Spend website itself is necessary and cost-effective (it’s impossible to know how much it costs as it’s bundled in with the whole deal); and whether the data-cleansing should be stripped out from the rest of the deal.
However, it’s worth saying that this agreement goes beyond just the member councils of the IESE, but to all councils that in the future use a similar agreement (obviously it’s ultimately up to them, but certainly this was the wish of everyone at the meeting).
Finally, I’d like to thank Andrew Larner at IESE for his open approach, and for Spikes Cavell for their willingness to engage. What we have here isn’t perfect (and I still fundamentally believe that councils should be doing the cleansing and publishing of the data themselves, and exchanging that knowledge with other councils and using it to improve their own data processes), but it’s a big step forward in genuinely opening up raw council data.
Update: The official notes of the meeting have now been published on the Local Public Data panel blog: http://data.gov.uk/blog/local-public-data-panel-%E2%80%93-sub-group-meeting-spotlight-spend-20-july-2010
My blog post on Friday about the local spending information, the open data that isn’t, and the agreements that some councils seem to have struck with Spikes Cavell raised a flurry of tweets, emails, and a reassuringly fast response from the government’s Transparency Board.
It also, I’m told, generated a huge number of emails among the main protagonists – local and central government bureaucrats and private companies, who spent much of Friday and the weekend shoring up their position and planning counter attacks against those working for open data, and thus threatening the status quo.
It’s a dangerous game they’re playing, working against the ‘right to data’ policy of the government, but I guess they think their jobs are more important than that, and no doubt there will be further plotting at the LGA conference this week.
There was also a response from Spikes Cavell itself on the Information Age website. Adrian Short deals with most of the issues in the comments (his deconstruction is well worth reading), but here I wanted to widen the topic, just a little, to expand a little on why this agreement and other like them are so contrary to the principles of open data.
The problem with the Spikes Cavell deal comes not from any sort of fundamentalist approach to open data (e.g. you must use this method to publish, and only this method), but that such agreements go against the central point of open data – the openness and the benefits that can bring.
Because if open public data is about anything, it’s about equal access to the data for everyone – to allow them to draw their own conclusions from it and to use it make new websites and mashups. And, yes, to build businesses too.
However, the important distinction here is that such businesses are based solely on what value they can add to the data, and not whether you have privileged access. Sadly it seems as if Spikes Cavell’s business model is based on restricting access, not building on open data.
Lest we forget, Spikes Cavell is not an agent for change here, not part of those pushing to open public data, but in fact has a business model which seems to be predicated on data being closed, and the maintenance of the existing procurement model which has served us so badly.
Not convinced? How about this quote from the website of a similar company, BiP, who I mentioned in a post about public data held in private databases:
Public procurement is highly process orientated, and is subject to a wide range of legal requirements and best practice guidelines.
Our team of skilled and experienced consultants can help ensure public sector buyers become more effective when procuring and can also assist suppliers by providing in-depth advice on how to win public sector tenders.
So they are making a margin on both sides, and in the process preventing proper scrutiny. Why on earth would companies like this want open data?
And why on earth would the quangos that depend on those processes want open data – because that transparency threatens the cosy system that pays their wages, and has eaten up so many of the resources thrown at public services by the previous government.
So here we have an opportunity for the new administration to follow through its promises to reform the way that the public sector does business, and to start with putting a stop to deals like this one.
When the coalition announced that councils would have to publish all spending over £500 by January next year, there’s been a palpable excitement in the open data and transparency community at the thought of what could be done with it (not least understanding and improving the balance of councils’ relationships with suppliers).
Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government Eric Pickles followed this up with a letter to councils saying, “I don’t expect everyone to do it right first time, but I do expect everyone to do it.” Great. Raw Data Now, in the words of Tim-Berners Lee.
Now, however, with barely the ink dry, the reality is looking not just a bit messy, a bit of a first attempt (which would be fine and understandable given the timescale), but Not Open At All.
As a member of the Local Public Data Panel, I’ve worked with other members and councils to draw up some clear and pragmatic draft guidelines for publishing the local spending data. We’ve had a great response in the comments and in conversations, and together with some lessons I did on importing the existing data, I think these will allow us to do a second draft soon.
One thing we weren’t explicit in that first draft – because we took it for granted – was that the data had to be open, and free for reuse by all. Equality of access by all is essential.
So I’ve been watching the activities of Spikes Cavell’s SpotlightOnSpend with some wariness and now those fears seem to have been borne out, as the company seems to set out not to consume the open data that councils are publishing, but to control this data.
The idea seems to be that councils should give Spikes Cavell privileged access to their detailed invoice information, which the company then adds to their proprietry and definitely non-open database, and then publishes an extract of this information on the SpotlightOnSpend website. Exactly what information they get, and under what terms isn’t disclosed anywhere.
The website’s got most of the buzzwords: transparency, accessible, efficiency. It’s even got a friendly .org.uk domain. If that’s not enough to convince councils, liberally sprinkled around the site is an apparent endorsement from the Secretary of State himself:
I’m really excited about the opportunities of transparency and it’s something this government is utterly committed to. spotlightonspend demonstrates that, when innovative businesses work with far-sighted public bodies, we can inform the public, reduce costs and improve democracy both locally and nationally.
However, when you go to the data and click on the download link this is what you get:
Note the “This data is for your personal use only” (not to mention the fact that the use of a captcha’ to screen out machines downloading the data means, er, you can’t use machines to automatically download the data, which is sort of the point of publishing the data in a machine-readable way).
Never mind, surely you can just head over to the council’s website and download the data from there? No chance. This is what you get on the Guildford website:
You can search and view this financial data using a new Spotlight on Spend national website. Just follow the link found in the offsite links section of this page.
What about Mole Valley Council:
This data is now available on the spotlight on spend website. You can look at categories and individual suppliers to see how much has been spent in each area or you can download all the data to see individual transactions.
But what about Windsor & Maidenhead, who are closely affiliated with the project, and who are publishing data on their website? Well, download the data from SpotlightOnSpend and it’s rather different from the published data. Different in that it is missing core data that is in W&M published data (e.g. categories), and that includes data that isn’t in the published data (e.g. data from 2008).
So the upshot seems to be this, councils hand over all their valuable financial data to a company which aggregates for its own purposes, and, er, doesn’t open up the data, shooting down all those goals of mashing up the data, using the community to analyse and undermining much of the good work that’s been done.
It’s worth linking here to the Open Knowledge Foundation’s draft guidelines on reporting of Government Finances (disclosure: I helped draw them up), of which the first point is ‘Make data openly available using an explicit license’. And let me be absolutely clear here: this is not open data, not a desirable approach, will not achieve the results of transparency or of equality of access, and is not good for the public sector.
I’m hoping this is a matter of councils and the Secretary of State not understanding the process and implications of giving this data to Spikes Cavell on a privileged basis. If not, perhaps it could be the first test case for the newly setup of Public Sector Transparency Board to rule on.
Update: With lightning fast speed, the Transparency Board has issued a statement about this issue reiterating the open data principles, and saying that measures are taking place to rectify the problem.
There are many questions remaining, not least the nature of the relationship with Spikes Cavell, and the undesirability about their privileged access to the information, but the Board should be congratulated for their quick reaction to the situation, and bodes well for the future issues that will undoubtedly come up.
In the meantime, I’ll keep on the case, and update with blog/tweet as I get more information