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Thursday, 20 February 2014

Thank you for offering to sell me public data, but I think I'll pass.

A company I like approached us recently, offering to sell us a "schools collaboration portal". The sales pitch was something like:

We can create a bespoke collaboration portal for you so you can compare your schools to any schools nationally. You can find similar schools and then contact them so you can share best practice. Imagine how amazing that would be.

After some clarification questions, I think their pitch could be better summarised as:

Please buy free, public data from us. It's worth paying for because we've put it all in one place with a pretty CRM front end. 

Hmm.

To be fair, it's not the worst idea in the world. Just because data is public, I get that software to analyse it might not be. And the people that pitched the idea are impressive and smart. Also, they aren't the only ones thinking about this, because a few minutes of googling (or "binging", to quote our Microsoft relationship manager), led me to stumble across schooldata.org.uk, who seem to offer a similar product with a freemium model. I've signed up and am looking forward to having play once my account is validated.

But clearly, free would be even better than freemium. So I'm dearly hoping that the rumours are true and that the fragmented mess that is Edubasethe performance tablesOfsted reportsOfsted dashboards, and Idaci data will be combined into a single portal very soon. That would immediately raise the bar for what is worth paying for. (I'm not saying these are bad initiatives in themselves, by the way. I like the Ofsted dashboards in particular. They're simple and graphical, which are both good qualities for data dashboards to demonstrate. But they're only a small part of the picture.)

And I still think my dream product is much bigger than whatever the DfE or gov.uk (or schooldata.org.uk) is likely to do. Imagine if someone cast the net wider and also built in population trend data, or the pupil intake ward data that's in the London Schools Atlas. Basically, any publicly available data that helps inform our view of what's going on with schools nationally. It would be a hugely beneficial open source project. Anyone up for it?

The technical challenge is not overwhelming. In the absence of a combined government portal, a few of us at ARK went ahead and created a National Schools Database in Salesforce. We've uploaded all the data sources I listed a couple of paragraphs ago, plus a few other bits and bobs. It's still quite homemade, but it's useful nonetheless, because we now have one place where we can go to answer any question about key schools data. And the fact that Salesforce is a CRM is a bonus, because we can add comments, notes and additional data in custom fields whenever we like. Perhaps we should have done it in CiviCRM - then we could have produced a fully "pre-loaded" version for others to use for free?

Anyway, geekery aside, my main point is that information wants to be free. And that is particularly true of public data. So thanks for offering to sell it to me... but I think I'll pass.

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