countculture

Open data and all that

Posts Tagged ‘spending

Not the way to build a Big Society: part1 NESTA

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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:

Why?

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

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Written by countculture

November 17, 2010 at 2:27 pm

Open data, fraud… and some worrying advice

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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:

http://www.google.co.uk/#sclient=psy&hl=en&q=%27vat+number+gb%27+site:com

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).

Written by countculture

October 26, 2010 at 11:38 am

Opening up council accounts… and open procurement

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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.

New feature: one-click FoI requests for spending payments

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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.

Making OpenCharities even better… more features, more data, more charities

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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:

Example of financial info for charity

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.
Social networking info for charities

[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.

Latest charities added to register

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:

Example of National Lottery grant info for a charity

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.

C

p.s. Big thanks to @ldodds and @pigsonthewing for helping with the RDF and microformats respectively

Written by countculture

September 23, 2010 at 2:40 pm

A Local Spending Data wish… granted

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The very wonderful Stuart Harrison (aka pezholio), webmaster at Lichfield District Council, blogged yesterday with some thoughts about the publication of spending data following a local spending data workshop in Birmingham. Sadly I wasn’t able to attend this, but Stuart gives a very comprehensive account, and like all his posts it’s well worth reading.

In it he made an important observation about those at the workshop who were pushing for linked data from the beginning, and wished there was a solution. First the observation:

There did seem to be a bit of resistance to the linked data approach, mainly because agreeing standards seems to be a long, drawn out process, which is counter to the JFDI approach of publishing local data… I also recognise that there are difficulties in both publishing the data and also working with it… As we learned from the local elections project, often local authorities don’t even have people who are competent in HTML, let alone RDF, SPARQL etc.

He’s not wrong there. As someone who’s been publishing linked data for some time, and who conceived and ran the Open Election Data project Stuart refers to, working with numerous councils to help them publish linked data I’m probably as aware of the issues as anyone (ironically and I think significantly none of the councils involved in the local government e-standards body, and now pushing so hard for the linked data, has actually published any linked data themselves).

That’s not to knock linked data – just to be realistic about the issues and hurdles that need to be overcome (see the report for a full breakdown), and that to expect all the councils to solve all these problems at the same time as extracting the data from their systems, removing data relating to non-suppliers (e.g. foster parents), and including information from other systems (e.g. supplier data, which may be on procurement systems), and all by January, is  unrealistic at best, and could undermine the whole process.

So what’s to be done? I think the sensible thing, particularly in these straitened times, is to concentrate on getting the raw data out, and as much of it as possible, and come down hard on those councils who publish it badly (e.g. by locking it up in PDFs or giving it a closed licence), or who willfully ignore the guidance (it’s worrying how few councils publishing data at the moment don’t even include the transaction ID or date of the transaction, never mind supplier details).

Beyond that we should take the approach the web has always done, and which is the reason for its success: a decentralised, messy variety of implementations and solutions that allows a rich eco-system to develop, with government helping solve bottlenecks and structural problems rather than trying to impose highly centralised solutions that are already being solved elsewhere.

Yes, I’d love it if the councils were able to publish the data fully marked up, in a variety of forms (not just linked data, but also XML and JSON), but the ugly truth is that not a single council has so far even published their list of categories, never mind matched it up to a recognised standard (CIPFA BVACOP, COFOG or that used in their submissions to the CLG), still less done anything like linked data. So there’s a long way to go, and in the meantime we’re going to need some tools and cheap commodity services to bridge the gap.

[In a perfect world, maybe councils would develop some open-source tools to help them publish the data, perhaps using something like Adrian Short’s Armchair Auditor code as the basis (this is a project that took a single council, WIndsor & Maidenhead, and added a web interface to the figures). However, when many councils don’t even have competent HTML skills (having outsourced much of it), this is only going to happen at a handful of councils at best, unless considerable investment is made.]

Stuart had been thinking along similar lines, and made a suggestion, almost a wish in fact:

I think the way forward is a centralised approach, with authorities publishing CSVs in a standard format on their website and some kind of system picking up these CSVs (say, on a monthly basis) and converting this data to a linked data format (as well as publishing in vanilla XML, JSON and CSV format).

He then expanded on the idea, talking about a single URL for each transaction, standard identifiers, “a human-readable summary of the data, together with links to the actual data in RDF, XML, CSV and JSON”. I’m a bit iffy about that ‘centralised approach’ phrase (the web is all about decentralisation), but I do think there’s an opportunity to help both the community and councils by solving some of these problems.

And  that’s exactly what we’ve done at OpenlyLocal, adding the data from all the councils who’ve published their spending data, acting as a central repository, generating the URLs, and connecting the data together to other datasets and identifiers (councils with Snac IDs, companies with Companies House numbers). We’ve even extracted data from those councils who unhelpfully try to lock up their data as PDFs.

There are at time of writing 52,443 financial transactions from 9 councils in the OpenlyLocal database. And that’s not all, there’s also the following features:

  • Each transaction is tied to a supplier record for the council, and increasingly these are linked to company info (including their company number), or other councils (there’s a lot of money being transferred between councils), and users can add information about the supplier if we haven’t matched it up.
  • Every transaction, supplier and company has a permanent unique URL and is available as XML and JSON
  • We’ve sorted out some of the date issues (adding a date fuzziness field for those councils who don’t specify when in the month or quarter a transaction relates to).
  • Transactions are linked to the URL from which the file was downloaded (and usually the line number too, though obviously this is not possible if we’ve had to extract it from a PDF), meaning anyone else can recreate the dataset should they want to.
  • There’s an increasing amount of analysis, showing ordinary users spending by month, biggest suppliers and transactions, for example.
  • The whole spending dataset is available as a single, zipped CSV file to download for anyone else to use.
  • It’s all open data.

There are a couple of features Stuart mentions that we haven’t yet implemented, for good reason.

First, we’re not yet publishing it as linked data, for the simple reason that the vocabulary hasn’t yet been defined, nor even the standards on which it will be based. When this is done, we’ll add this as a representation.

And although we use standard identifiers such as SNAC ids for councils (and wards) on OpenlyLocal, the URL structure Stuart mentions is not yet practical, in part because SNAC ids doesn’t cover all authorities (doesn’t include the GLA, or other public bodies, for example), and only a tiny fraction of councils are publishing their internal transaction ids.

Also we haven’t yet implemented comments on the transactions for the simple reason that distributed comment systems such as Disqus are javascript-based and thus are problematic for those with accessibility issues, and site-specific ones don’t allow the conversation to be carried on elsewhere (we think we might have a solution to this, but it’s at an early stage, and we’d be interested to hear other idea).

But all in all, we reckon we’re pretty much there with Stuart’s wish list, and would hope that councils can get on with extracting the raw data, publishing it in an open, machine-readable format (such as CSV), and then move to linked data as their resources allow.

Written by countculture

August 3, 2010 at 7:45 am

Local Spending in OpenlyLocal: what features would you like to see?

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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.

Written by countculture

July 26, 2010 at 9:44 am