There is a growing demand that public data should be transparent and accessible. This demand has generated search sites where members can log in and ask other people, institutions and councillors for answers to their questions. I logged into getthedata to see what people were asking about. Questions varied from ‘Where can I access product barcode data?’ to requests for ‘Winter Olympic Medal data’.
These sites are a market place to share information, and tips for where to access it. Although this all sounds really helpful, I noticed that many of the posts and questions remained unanswered. On getthedata there was a whole tab dedicated to unanswered questions. In fact I counted 79 open questions without accepted answers, compared with the 135 answered successfully.
The most popular question, in terms of views, and answers was ‘What tools and websites are good for scraping data from websites?’ Interestingly all the other popular posts were asking for similar information. People seemed to want information about how they could find data on their own, rather than wanting to get involved with sharing it on an online community.
I thought I would try it out, and set about asking some questions of my own to see if I could get a good response. I logged into getthedata.org and posted questions such as ‘Has anyone got any tips for which visualization tools are the best?’ and ‘Why do people use data search engines’. As yet I have had no responses for the second question. However within 20 minutes of posting the first question I had received two responses and both were pretty helpful. You can access the answers here
I tried to interact with other users in the site, by trying to answer their questions, but people seemed to be quite solitary in purpose. I logged in to whatdotheyknow to see whether it was the same on here, and to see whether the questions people were asking were any different. This search engine is different in the sense that it is purely for Freedom of Information requests. On the main page there appeared to be many more successful requests on here than on getthedata, presumably largely because as whatdotheyknow states the councils are legally required to answer any requests.
However when I entered a search for a particular public authority, in this case Camden, I found that around half of the requests were ‘awaiting classification’ or ‘internal review’ out of 880 requests. One request for information regarding the outcome of a court case for a parking fine had been registered in early November last year, and was still yet to be answered. So it would seem that whilst whatdotheyknow.com encourages a more transparent relationship between public authorities and the public themselves, the public authorities themselves are still unreliable.