The following blog post is written by Rob Davidson.
Since my arrival at the ONS 6 months ago, I have received a good deal of training on the sort of stuff you’d expect at a big, responsible organisation – anti-bullying and harassment training, equality and diversity training, health and safety, responsibility with information, and a raft of ‘digital awareness’ modules. I think this training is of real value but a lot of people might see the legal requirement for this as an undue burden on business, especially for small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs). I would argue that government bodies like the ONS can maximise the value of their work and reduce some of the perceived burden on SMEs by applying Open Data philosophy to all resources pushing beyond the common misunderstanding that ‘open data’ is just the information that can be found in spreadsheets.
Training in the digital economy
I’ve just been given some training in Display Screen Equipment (DSE) best-practice. You know, how you should arrange your chair, your keyboard and your monitor and so on. With 1 in 8 unemployed people giving back pain as the reason they are out of work and with back pain having an total cost of £12.8 bn annually, training in how to avoid this through enabling users to understand how to work safely with computers has a real long-term benefit for the economy and our well-being.
The responsibility for this training falls to employers but since January 2000, the UK’s self-employed population has risen by 1.5 million or 43%. We are no longer a nation of shopkeepers – we are now a nation of online retailers or at least, a good many of our self-employed will use computers or portable “Smart” devices for long periods of time. Other trends such as ‘bring our own device’ ( BYOD) may encourage people to bring non-standard equipment to the office or even to go sit in a coffee shop instead (especially at small tech-startups) and there is a growing use of computers by kids in school. Can we expect the self-employed, small start-ups and over-worked teachers to invest as much time in DSE and other useful training as a large, well established body like the ONS and other central government bodies?
Open Data doesn’t stop at spreadsheets
A major rationale behind open data is that a publicly funded resource should be made publicly available. This applies to academic research papers, to government collected data and I would say that it should apply to training resources too. After all, training materials, developed by a government department, are a publicly funded resource… shouldn’t they also be ‘open by default‘ ?
There is a movement for this in education where teaching materials are shared as ‘open education resources’ (see my genomics materials for school children over at OER Commons). This hasn’t reached commercial training yet because, of course, commercial training is private intellectual property. But in government, assuming the training is developed in-house, we could (potentially) make these resources available for public re-use.
More than just the potential for increased uptake in small businesses, there could be savings across government too. If government bodies shared training materials the way teachers are beginning to share lesson plans it could represent a saving in public financing and human resource.
Awesome Open Training examples
The best example of this sort of training resource sharing that I know of is Software Carpentry (and its spin-off, Data Carpentry) which is a training scheme that has emerged from academia where the need to enhance basic programming skills rapidly across all fields of research led to the realisation that distributed, viral training was the only way to manage it. To achieve this, the training materials are placed on GitHub and anyone has the option of using the main ‘branch’ of materials or ‘forking’ their own branch that they can then adapt for their local audience – with successful improvements being easily adopted by the main branch of materials.
This has proved incredibly effective and the system of having many trainers offering updates and suggestions has led to great innovations like different language options, different branches for audiences of different backgrounds, and so on.
This idea of the ‘living document’ would be really useful for ONS’ common concerns about its publications. We need to have a high standard and we need to have extra features like Welsh language options and transcribed videos etc. Where those are too costly we simply don’t publish and that is arguably reducing the value obtained from our resources. By adhering to the recent Charles Bean Review recommendations and ‘increasing our appetite for risk’ and becoming more ‘experimental’, we could decide to release resources without the usual additions and then look to the community to provide language alternatives and so on – additions being provided based on community need, by the community that needs it.