Open data projects should start with user needs

Open data projects need to cross a utility/relevance chasm before they gain uptake. Tom Steinberg of MySociety, a prominent UK civic app development team, argues that app contests and hack days aren’t enough—you need to focus on concrete projects, laser-focused on real user needs.

Why is a user focus critical?

“What people never, ever do is wake up thinking, ‘Today I need to do something civic,’ or, ‘Today I will explore some interesting data via an attractive visualisation.’ MySociety has always been unashamed about packaging civic services in a way that appeals directly to real people with real, everyday needs. I gleefully delete the two or three emails a year that land in our inbox suggesting that FixMyStreet should be renamed to FixOurStreet. No, dude, when I’m pissed it’s definitely my street, which is why people have borrowed the name around the world.

“We learned this lesson most vividly from Pledgebank, a sputtering site with occasional amazing successes and lots and lots of “meh.” The reason it never took off was because, unlike the later (and brilliant) Kickstarter, we didn’t make it specific enough. We didn’t say “use this site to raise money for your first album,” or “use this site to organise a march.” We said it was a platform for “getting things done,” and the users walked away in confusion. That’s why our new site is called FixMyTransport, even though it’s actually the first instance of a general civic-problem-fixing platform that could handle nearly any kind of local campaigning.”

That might mean, Tom argues, that it makes sense to bet bigger on fewer horses:

“MySociety got lucky…its second ever grant was for…about a quarter of a million dollars. It was amazing luck for a small organisation with no track record…Those days are gone…but governments everywhere should note that that funding of this scale got us right through our first couple of years, until sites like WriteToThem were mature and had proved their public value (and picked up an award or two).

“In the subsequent few years, we saw the ‘thousand flowers bloom’ mentality really take over the world of public-good digital funding, and we saw it go way beyond what was sensible. Time and again, we’d see two good ideas get funding and eight bad ones at the same time because of the sense that it was necessary to spread the money around. It would be great if someone could make the case to public grant funders that good tech ideas — and the teams that can implement them — are vanishingly rare. There is nothing to be ashamed about dividing the pot up two or three ways if there are only a few ideas or proposals or hacks that justify the money. The larger amounts this would produce wouldn’t mean champagne parties for grantees, it would mean the best ideas surviving long enough to grow meaningful traffic and learn how to make money other ways. After a long road supported by public grant funding, mySociety is now 50% commercially funded and 50% private-grant funded, but we’d never have arrived there without being 100% public-grant funded for the first couple of years.” (source)

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