What is an Open Data Surgery?


Open Data Surgery

Some of the more eagle eyed among you may have noticed a logo appearing next to some of our surgery dates denoting them as an “Open Data Surgery”:

Where you see this logo it means that as well as being able to attend a surgery to find support on social media there will also be someone there willing and able to discuss Open Data with you.

But what does this mean?

Open data is essentially all the facts, figures and statistics government and other public sector organisations release that we as citizens have the right to see and use. This can include things such and local authority spending. census information, road accident data, demographic information etc.

With this data you can do many things such as evidence eligibility for funding bids , campaign for change or show your groups value to an area. You just need to know what it is you’d like to achieve and then start looking for the data to use or support it.

Will this be available at every surgery?

Surgery Managers have the option on whether to offer open data support on a event by event basis, depending on the availability and skills of the volunteer surgeons.  So, Surgeons if you have the skills to be able to offer this type of support, be sure to let your surgery manger know when you sign up so they can toggle this option on to the sessions you will be able to attend.

Then  all you patients need to do it keep your eye out for the logo and introduce yourself to your surgery manager when you arrive to make sure you are paired up with the right person that’s signed up to offer open data support.

Open Data Policy for Voluntary Service Councils.

Manchester Community Central  – the voluntary service council for the city – releases some of it’s data as open data.

They define it as

  • Open data are data that can be freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone

  • It is subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and sharealike

  • Open data are the building blocks of open knowledge

  • Open knowledge is what open data becomes when it’s useful, usable and used

and add that their main aims are


  • That our data are useful. We wish to publish data that bring value to those building a stronger community and voluntary sector.

  • That our data are meaningful. We wish to publish data that add to the ongoing dialogue and discussion about the sector.

  • That our data are accessible. We wish to publish data in an open and accessible way, and provide regular narrative and understanding to the stakeholders

So far they have provided open data on the grants they give and some information about groups in the city.  The grants data is very illuminating, showing who received the grant, what for and how much.

left hand side of the MACC grants spreadsheet
left hand side of the MACC grants spreadsheet

The image below of from one of the the spreadsheets on groups – showing how many member groups serve different parts of the city. I’ve added a very brief explanation of the GSS code and the GNS code. These help you when adding the information to a map.

what is the difference betyween GSS and ONS geographical data
MACC open data spreadsheet on groups.


The data comes in spreadsheet files which are  .ods format.  This is an open format  and can be opened with microsoft excel or open source software like open office (which is free, open source software and works much like microsoft office).   If you use an Apple Mac computer you’ll need to download an install open office to read the file.

MACC have  written a policy on open data (opens as a pdf)  – which is useful and practical for any vol sector organisation planning to follow in their footsteps.

Created under the Open Government License
Created under the Open Government License


Deciphering Data from the Department of Transport About Accidents in your Neighbourhood

Maze Starts Here
I’m currently attempting to write a post about how data can be used for a community campaign. I’m looking at what data is available to someone who who would like to campaign for a pedestrian crossing outside a school.

Thinking practically – where would I start if I were really going to do this –  I turned to the Department of Transport. They publish road accident data,  road safety spend, population details, road traffic data and more.

They’ve handily created a map of the road traffic accidents from their data on collisions, but I wanted to see if I could find out how that related to the area when bringing other factors into play. For instance 3 accidents in a year is a lot when traffic is generally low  – but 3 accidents in a year in a very high traffic low population area area might not be such a huge problem when considered in context.

I’ve just tried downloading their road traffic dataset, the description they give says it contains “Road traffic estimates broken up by local highways authority, vehicle type and total in miles broken up by year.” Fairly self explanatory, or so I thought. Screenshot_021315_120007_PM

Opening the excel file I quickly realise I need to do more research.

I understand that the numbers in the columns marked with vehicle type is the number of vehicles in millions that have travelled on roads in a specific location but in what location? What does ons_new_code mean? What do the S12000033 etc numbers represent?

I googled to try and find out, I quickly established that the ONS codes are codes from the Office of National Statistics that relate to place but that’s about as far as I could get without downloading other folders of documents to find what I needed from their site and I wasn’t sure which one…

So I turned back to the DfT site, and tried another download – this time looking at their data on population “Residential population data broken up by local highways authority and year.”

Now interestingly this data includes the ONS code and a local authority name so I can a least get an idea of where the codes related to…


So by looking up the local authority name on the population spreadsheet to find the ons code I was able to look up the road traffic data on the other…Or was I? I tried to test out my theory.

If the road traffic data is reported for the same 7 year period as the population data, (which it appeared to be) sorting the ONS_new_code column alphabetically on both spread sheets I should be able to compare the two side by side.

But that’s where my theory falls down. Just by looking at the number of rows on the two spread sheets you can see that the data isn’t easily comparable. There is 1170 rows of data on the population spread sheet and 1435 on the road Traffic Spreadsheet and it’s showing ONS codes that don’t exist on the other.

So it’s back to google I go to try and understand which of the ONS documents I need to decipher what the codes in the DfT data mean so I can ensure I’m looking at the correct information for the area I’m researching.

(Are you still with me?)

I’ve spent over an hour on this already – all the data I need is in front me, if only I could understand it!

Don’t worry – I won’t give up, but I just wanted to share this for anyone else embroiled in making the best use of open data to campaign around traffic, crossings, roads safety and any other term I can think of to encourage you to find this post through search.

Created under the Open Government License
Created under the Open Government License


Can or Should Community Groups Standardise Surveys for Comparing Data?

The value of standardization

The other day while I was looking for survey tools for BOSF I came across a page on the Office for National Statistic (ONS) website with guideline on the standardisation for collecting data for Goverment surveys.

By standardising collection methods it is easier for users to draw clearer and more robust comparisons between data sources.

There are guidelines around demographic information, economic status, general health, ethnicity among other things. Their website says;

These sets of harmonised concepts and questions provide a standard means of collecting information about a given topic.

For example the guide to Demographic Information, Household Composition and Relationships gives a clear description on definition of a household….

The definition of a household is: One person living alone; or a group of people (not necessarily related) living at the same address who share cooking facilities and share a living room or sitting room or dining area.

….and then further explanation on the breakdown of the household and the structure any other questions should take.

Of course not every attempt to standardise leads to standardisation.  For example the ONS standard list for ethnicity (link opens as a pdf)  includes this:

1. English / Welsh / Scottish / Northern Irish / British
2. Irish
3. Gypsy or Irish Traveller
4. Any other White background, please describe

The 4th one – “Any other White background, please describe” is a bit of a get out of jail free card when it comes to standardisation.

But it got me thinking, If groups use the same standards when conducting large surveys would that make their data easier to compare to government data, or better still maybe – with each other?

What are your thoughts?

Created under the Open Government License
Created under the Open Government License


Some links on open data, government and charities – Jan 2015

(First published here)

The BBC Reports that ”

The UK government is the most open and transparent in the world, according to global rankings looking at public access to official data.

But web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee, whose organisation compiled the table, says the country has “a long way to go” before it has a fully open government


UK addresses as open data:  the “UK’s first open and free address list launches”:


Voluntary sector and open data.

David Kane from NCVO writes:

My aim as a member of ODUG is to represent the needs of the voluntary sector – but to do that I need your help. I’d love to hear your open data issues – are there datasets that government produce that would help you but which you can’t get hold of at the moment?

A great place to start is the data requests process on data.gov.uk. This is where you can request access to datasets that aren’t currently open – they’ll be looked into by the team at the Cabinet Office and ODUG will also keep an eye on the process. You can also get in touch with me directly if you have any questions or comments about open data.

Something that ODUG members have been working hard on recently is a response to the government’s proposals for a National Information Infrastructure (NII). This ODUG paper published today sets out what we believe a National Information Infrastructure should look like, and how it is as important for the country as a physical infrastructure such as Crossrail.

see more http://blogs.ncvo.org.uk/2015/01/27/making-open-data-work-for-the-voluntary-sector/




Using free tools to survey community groups and then perhaps combining that with open data. An example from BOSF, part 1

BOSF website
BOSF website

Open_Government_LicenceAs part of the open data project at the Social Media Surgeries we’ve been working with Birmingham Open Spaces Forum (BOSF) to see if we can find a way of using data to help them in their work. BOSF is a network organisation that aims to bring together all the people in Birmingham with an interest in open spaces – so Friends of Parks Groups, allotments, community gardeners etc. There are close to 100 small community groups involved in this wider network.

To help them we first need to know what data related problem they want to  solve. We met and explored various possibilites but plumped for a very practical problem – how do they  way to collect evidence for how much income the groups generate in their respective areas. This was worked down to 2 simple questions.

  • How to collect the data
  • How to display it (and for whom and where)

At this point we’re not using open data, but it’s a good place to start to get a group understanding how to use data, and some of the tools that can be used to visualize and manipulate it.

After some discussion with the group it was decided that best way to collect the information they wanted was through Google Forms.

Google Forms is a free survey tool that does more than just create questionnaires, it allows you to embed videos and photos to illustrate your questions and collaborate with other Google users, but more importantly in this instance it collects responses directly to a spreadsheet so that the data collected can be quickly accessed and used with other tools.

Google Forms

To be able to use Forms you first need Google email (Gmail), which, if you haven’t already got an account, is a 2 minute sign up process here. It is then one of the functions available in Google Drive and building a form is an option under “Create new”.

Once you’ve done that you should end up with a page that looks like this:

Google Form

Now you can begin to build your survey. There are a number of question types you can choose from, they include, among others, plain text, multiple choice, scale, date and time with the option to make each a “Required question” so that completion is mandatory to complete the form.

Some even have bespoke settings that allow you to make choices based on the answers (i.e. if yes go to Question 5) and advanced settings that will let you refine it further (text must contain  ***, number greater *** than etc etc).

Google Form Question Type

As you set each question you can give it a description to give people pointers as to the sort of response you’re after, or if there are options on how to answer.

For example

PostcodeChrsitmas Question






To add more questions you just need to click add new item and when you think you’re done, click done.

To create the form that’s all you need to do. There are options on the screen to track progress and requiring people to log in to leave responses etc. And you can also add page breaks so only a set amount of questions appear per page, and change the theme to make it look pretty but at it’s simplest your form is complete.

To see an example of a simple form I’ve created click here (you can even fill it in if you like).

Collecting Data

Now you have your form you can share it widely to start collecting responses. Google have also made this easy – you can share it directly from the creation page by clicking “Send form”, view the live form to get a direct link or grab the embed code to put it on your own blog/website (go to File  > Embed)

Sharing a Goolge Form



We worked with BOSF to create a questionnaire that they then sent out to their members and was also blogged about on their site.

They sent that out this week with 4 weeks to get responses back.

As the responses come in they’ll use the spreadsheet to total up the figures city wide, breakdown the figures by ward and evidence how important the groups are in their neighbourhoods.

They’ll also be able to see a rough breakdown of how each group raises money, and then potentially signpost them to each others dependent on their strengths (bid writing vs fundraising etc).

One note of caution when collecting numbers: you can get carried away.  We started here just wanting one simple number – how much money did this groups bring in and where are they.  It become tempting to started looking for lots of other information, but staying focussed on a simple achievable and thing probably improves the liklihood that people will help and you will succeed.

Once they’ve completed collecting the data they can then turn some of the responses  into a graphic. By using Google Form’s built in “Show summary of responses” option it will automatically generate pie charts and graphs for the relevant sections – which are sometimes easier to to understand than just rows and columns of figures.

What next?

Once that data has all been collected there are other things BOSF could do. Maybe the could use the figures to calculate the value of the volunteer hours to the areas that they serve.

Maybe they could look at using use Google fusion tables to create a maps to show the income across different areas of the city and maybe they could then use that map to compare it to Open Data Communities Map of deprivation to show the good they do in the lowest income areas…

We’ll just have to wait and see what’s most appropriate for them at the next surgery.

Social Media Surgeries for data and open data skills.

Could your community group or charity be more effective if you collected information in different ways, used it better, shared it with the right people?  Would it help if you could more easily find information that government has about the places  or perhaps the people you are trying to help?

We are experimenting in Birmingham with how we can use the social media surgeries to share not just social media skills with local community groups and charities, but also data skills.

If you want a chat – even to find out what we mean – please click the links below for anyone of the surgeries for the following areas and sign up…

Central Birmingham Social Media

Moseley and Kings Heath Social Media Surgery

Kings Norton Social Media Surgery

What should I expect?

As always we start with you and your group.  What are you trying to achieve? What skills and tools do you have at the moment?  Can we show you new ideas that could help you achieve more? Can we help you in practical ways use those skills and tools – there and then? Always the same relaxed approach of a social media surgery.

What’s your aim?

Our ultimate aim is to encourage more community groups and local charities to find good uses for Open data.  This is numerical information that government shares in public.  so we can have a better understanding of the places we live in and the way government works.  But we won’t throw you into anything difficult, we’ll start where you are and help you with the numbers and skills that matter to you.

Is there any information online?

As we work with people we’ll learn together how to solve problems. We’ll describe what we’re doing and share it here on the blog.  We will also be writing about things that might help you, tools, sites where data is stored, examples from other organisations.

I have no idea what you mean when you say open data!

Sorry – it is jargony.  Open government data is when government shares information on the internet that it owns  and grants you and I permission to use it (using an open government license) A simple example is local government releasing a monthly list of all spending over £500.  You can find the Birmingham one here.  But don’t be phased by any of this – we want to help you develop the understanding and skills that might be useful for what you are trying to achieve.