Opening up data in Newcastle Libraries

Open data

At the CILIP MmIT conference in September we will be talking about releasing and re-using library data. Here is a bit about our experience of open data in Newcastle Libraries.

By open data we mean information that has been published and made freely available for re-use, using an open license such as Creative Commons or the UK Open Government License.

Why open data

The reason we are so interested in open data is simple: the principles of it fit with our ethics. We are library and information professionals; as such, we believe it is our role to facilitate the sharing of information, knowledge and culture.

Traditionally we facilitate access to other people's content and information; we have books for loan, journals subscriptions, internet access, artworks and artefacts on display, etc.  This got us thinking about the information we hold and collect as a service: why weren't we sharing our own as well as other peoples’? We have information on our collections through our catalogue, on our PC usage through our booking system, on our members, our events, our buildings, the list goes on.

We are the custodians of this information, but it does not belong to us: it belongs to the citizens of Newcastle. And we need to give it back to them: freely, clearly, openly.


The process of publishing our information also prompted us and acted as a catalyst, changing the way we look at and use data internally. Looking at what data we collect, how it is collected, stored and ultimately used.

Although we are at the early stages with releasing our data, we are keen to work towards data-driven decision-making. In the past we have made changes to our services based on what we think we know or what we believe might be best however these are often assumptions or based on our experiences. We want to challenge this by showing and sharing our data and basing our decisions on this.

One of the interesting issues we have come across when asking people to release data is that they want to know what data people want, why they would want it and what would they do with it. The answer often is, we don’t know!

Dropping the C-word

Among the practicalities of opening up data, the first is to make sure you actually own that data; this was not a problem for us and should not be for most library services.

When we talk about ownership of data and publishing under an open license, we need to mention the C-word: copyright. In some cases a neighbouring right may apply, known as database rights. Using an open license means waiving some of those rights so that others may use your content without asking you or paying you for permission.

The next thing we had to do was to decide which licence we would use to make our data open. The Open Data Institute has an excellent guide to open data licensing which is a must-read to understand the different rights and licenses you may be dealing with.  

We settled for the Open Government Licence (OGL), which covers information protected by either copyright or database rights. This was an obvious choice because other data sets already released by Newcastle City Council at the time (March 2016) were published under OGL.

As it happens, five months later we dropped the OGL and moved our data under a public domain dedication, waiving all rights to our information. But we are not going to go into the details here, as explaining why we did this would probably take up a whole article in itself!

Join the movement

Technically it is very easy to share and open data. It isn't a technical problem, it’s about changing the culture within your organisation to one where it is ok (or actively encouraged) to share. 

People can often be reluctant to share their data for a number of reasons, It can be perceived as a loss of control, they may be worried how accurate their data is and more frequently people genuinely don’t know what they can and can’t share. 

In response to frequent well-publicised information and data security horror-stories people often default to the 'safest' option which unfortunately is usually to lock information away in a system where nobody else has access to it.

Releasing data is still the unknown, when we speak to data owners were often asked: Why do you want the data? Who are you going to give it to? What are they going to do with it? 

Our answer to all of these is we don’t know but that’s ok, in fact that’s the whole point. We release so that people can do things with our data that we haven't and wouldn’t have thought of.

Releasing libraries data should be fairly easy to do as much of the data is non-contentious. The data will probably belong to you, it’s up to you to decide what you want to do with it.

It helps to have someone in your organisation working on open data, many organisations, including local authorities, are exploring the possibilities which come with open data, seek them out!

Top tips

In conclusion we thought it would be good to share some of our top tips when it comes to releasing data base on our experiences.

Talk to others who have done it before. People are really open to sharing their experiences and help you where they can.

Just start publishing, it starts the conversation with data owners and data consumers and you will learn so much more this way. 

Find examples of where seemingly 'boring' or 'dull' datasets have been used to create great things. People often can’t see how their data could be used in any way other than what they currently use it for. Show them the 'art of the possible'

Try to release data in a standard, easily reusable and consistent way (we used CSV) and give people as much information about the dataset as you can.

About the CILIP MmIT Conference

Date: 12 - 13 September 2016
Location: Sheffield

The CILIP Multimedia Information and Technology (MmIT) Group conference is titled "Digital Citizenship: What is the library's role?" It will explore and discuss several digital citizenship themes and the role and responsibility of the library and the librarian in supporting citizenry in the digital world.



Image source: "Open data" by descrier, used under CC BY 2.0 / original cropped and resized


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