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I’m beginning to think that ‘to recommend’ is an irregular verb like those that appeared every so often in Yes, Minister:

Bernard: It’s one of those irregular verbs, isn’t it: I have an independent mind; you are an eccentric; he is round the twist.

Something like: I recommend, you tell people what to do, he engages in premature standardisation.

Our own recommendations are much more reasonable than those made by other people. We understand the requirements, whereas they haven’t talked to anyone. We are issuing them as guidance and are open to feedback, whereas they are ramming them down people’s throats.

Of course without guidance, recommendations and standards of some description, it becomes near impossible to do anything useful. Take a look at the wide variety of information released by different councils to meet their commitment to publish spending data. Many use different formats but even amongst those that use Excel or CSV, the column names are different. Look closer and you see that they actually report at different levels of granularity as well. Some report each transaction, some each invoice item, some the ways these items are assigned to different cost centres. Some stick to the £500 limit, some report everything. Some include VAT in the amounts they quote, some don’t. Some provide the dates of each transaction, some just the period that it occurred in. If you are clever and committed, you can find some wood in the trees but it’s hard work.

This variety is not due to pigheadedness or stupidity on the part of the councils. It’s down to the very different technical and political constraints and approaches, and the fact that there was little guidance at all, up until this week, about what was expected of them.

The point I’m making is that people in different circumstances will naturally do things differently; common practice does not appear overnight by magic.

Should councils have held off publishing their data until there was some kind of guidance in place? Absolutely 100% No! It is far better to have the data in some form than to not have it at all, and it’s only by making real data available that they and we get to start informed discussions about what kind of guidance is necessary.

Should they be working towards publishing something better? Hell Yeah! Data is not really open if the people who consume it have to put in hours or days of effort to understand it, map it, merge it, to be able to do something useful with it.

What that ‘something better’ looks like, I really don’t know. My prediction is that councils will converge gradually, over time, into a handful of different approaches (rather than the basketful that we have now). Some will converge by choosing to use particular publishers for their data. Others will converge because they want to take advantage of particular tools for analysing or visualising the data that they produce, which will require certain formats. Still others will converge through an interest in “doing what’s right”, based on guidance from groups and organisations that they trust.

From chaos will come order, eventually. But this is a process that is led by politics – negotiation, persuasion, socialisation and cultural change – not by technology. It’s only to be expected that there will be differences in approaches along the way, because we need to try, to learn, and we need for there to be choice, to evolve.