The Sprit of BCCDIY rides again – an open data platform in a day in Birmingham


I often talk to people about BCCDIY.

In 2009 a group of local developers and bloggers got together and built an alternative to Birmingham City Council’s website. They called it BCCDIY.

They wanted to demonstrate that information could be better organised and more easily accessed.  They did it in a day (with some preparation) (you can see a version here) .  The council’s new website had taken one of the countries largest consultancy firms four years and they had charged £2.8 million pounds.

A group of people working on BCC DIY
BCC DIY taking shape in 2009 – image Dan Davies

When I tell public servants and residents about the cost of the council website they gasp. They’re not surprised, but they are angry.  When I tell them about BCCDIY they also gasp – with a sort of mischievous happiness. They are delighted to see people taking things into their own hands and showing where bad decisions lead to wasted money and effort. A councillor involved in spending the £2.8 million pounds response to BCCDIY – when I explained it to them – was “we didn’t have the knowledge.”

Now you do, or you can (come and talk to any local developer – they’ll help you learn).

And now is not the time to repeat the mistake of just doing what the big consultancies tell local government is right.

The lesson of BCCDIY was not learnt when the Library of Birmingham website was built (by the same contractor) for £1.2 million pounds.  I don’t know how much it should have cost – but I’m confident I know local agencies who would have been delighted to deliver it at a sixth of the price and to maintain it for much less than the current annual cost.

So let’s not make a similar mistake a third time, when the council eventually creates a place to put and share Open Data .

On Saturday Simon Whitehouse and some others will be building an Open Data platform for the West Midlands – in a day. You can join in, if you like.   In effect he’ll be doing the equivalent of BCCDIY before a silly sum of money is spent by the public sector…

This is what Simon says about the plan for Saturday:

In Birmingham we are holding an event at Birmingham City University where we are going to set up a West Midlands “Open DataStore In A Day”. The idea is quite simple. Over the day we will set up a website that can hold open datasets and publish what we can find to it. You don’t have to be a technical whizz to take part. Enthusiasm and curiosity are enough to make it worth your while coming along.

We’ll spend the day finding and collecting the data that people are interested in and we’ll put it all together in one place online, in the West Midlands Open Datastore. Once we’ve done that, it makes it all a lot easier to do something useful with.

If somebody can’t find the data that they are interested in then we will help them to write a Freedom Of Information request to ask for it. When those are answered we will add them to the Open Datastore.

I’m really pleased that Data Unlocked, the co-operative venture that I’ve recently helped to co-found, are providing the website for people to work on during the day, and that we will continue supporting it afterwards. We’ve helped to organise the day along with Open Mercia and RnROrganisation.

In Emer Coleman’s recent post about the City as a Platform she says that she has seen quotes of up to £200,000 for Data Platforms. We think that we can do a lot with some free open source software and the goodwill of people volunteering their time and skills.

Emer Coleman goes on to add that any datastore should be deliverable well within a developer budget of £20k.  It seems that  Saturday might  get local authorities in the West mids off to a flying start.




The report on birmingham.gov.uk is published

I’m sitting in Leeds just put the finishing touches to my speech for the Local Government Communications conference tomorrow: “Collaboration with citizens via digital technology”.  It’s amazing what you picking when sitting around.

First of all congratulations to Birmingham City Council for winning a very deserved silver in tonight’s Reputations award here for the effort that has gone into Birminghamnewsroom blog and a gold (along with the local pcts) for the Be active campaign (free swimming etc).
The theme of the conference is “Better for Less” so it’s also a very good time and place to find the report on the creation of the new Birmingham City Council website, the one that Help Me Investigate (I’m a co owner of HMI) revealed, through a Freedom of Information Request to the City Council,  had cost a “currently approved spend” of £2.8 million pounds. The same site which spurred on Birmingham folk to produce the ground breaking BCCDIY.

Here is the executive summary of the report, copied verbatim below.  You can find the pdf here, the recommendations (many) here and the information briefing here.

Update: I’m told the link to the pdf’s dont work (after all they are stored on birmingham.gov.uk.  To get at them

* http://www.birmingham.gov.uk/democracy/Pages/Index.aspx

* Set 1st drop down, ‘Meeting Body Type’, to ‘Executive’

* Set 2nd  drop down, ‘Meeting Body’ to ‘Deputy Leader’

* Set both dates to ’24/05/2010′

* Hit “Go”

* Select ‘Deputy Leader’

* Select ‘Information Briefing Web CMS Project’

There – that was easy – what a brilliant system, worth every penny.

End of update

The Executive summary says:

This was a complex project involving numerous departments, personnel and suppliers over five years. The project was all about enabling BCC to respond and adapt to the opportunities provided by the web as BCC moves forward with programmes intended to deliver major benefits internally and to all stakeholders, especially the citizens of Birmingham. All comments below should be read within this context.

1.2 There were governance and management challenges throughout this project over the last five years. Many respondents felt there was a lack of a clear and robust command and control structure, which contributed to delays and overruns. Whilst these issues have started to be addressed in the last twelve months, we nevertheless recommend a simplified and well-communicated management system for the web going forward, consisting of a Web Services Director/senior manager, a Web Manager responsible day-to-day, a more inclusive Web Steering Group, and tighter financial control.

1.3 It was generally agreed that web project management in future needs to be applied at a more senior level within BCC and Service Birmingham. The web as a whole should be seen as the pivotal channel that it is and must have a higher profile at Executive level in BCC. It was also felt that in future web projects should be service-led rather than technology-led.

1.4 Change management – in respect of both personnel and specifications – will improve if a senior project manager is in place at all times. It was generally agreed that ineffective change management contributed to the delays on this project.

1.5 Auditing and risk management – audits were performed professionally but deadlines on the project were consistently missed despite the reports of Birmingham Audit. Key risks which are identified must be given more priority. It is suggested that predicted deadlines then need to be revised with a contingency factor and promised actions for rectification must be monitored and delivered.

1.6 Financial control will be better exercised with the nomination of a dedicated project accountant, in line with best practice. All new work requested by the proposed Web Steering Group must be costed in detail and signed off from a ‘user needs’ perspective prior to sign-off by Finance and work being carried out.

1.7 The new website did not cost £2.8m as is widely reported. This figure includes many other major items which were involved in the project apart from the website and it is important that this continues to be communicated to the citizens of Birmingham, directly and via the local press.
Final Report – Web CMS Review – 03 03 10.doc Page 4/64
Web CMS Project Post Implementation Review – Final Report
February 2010

1.8 During the last two years, the Project Sponsor undertook negotiations with Service Birmingham regarding additional claimed costs by Service Birmingham on this project. It is stated by BCC that the outcome of these negotiations resulted in reductions of over £900,000 in these additional costs.

1.9 The site itself now requires all remaining content to be uploaded and we feel that it also requires a look more in keeping with the vibrant city which Birmingham is. Navigation and design could be improved as part of this process.

1.10 It is widely believed by BCC personnel that the new Content Management System (CMS) – which empowers individuals to upload content to the website and intranet – requires further work before it can be said to function effectively for its users. There are questions over the extent to which the FatWire CMS system was customised unnecessarily. The system is currently viewed as unstable by the BCC Web Team and requires remedial action.

1.11 To serve everyone, BCC’s website must be fully accessible and must also comply with the Disability Discrimination Act. Major improvements have been made but key BCC personnel believe that more still needs to be done before the Council’s stated policy is achieved. This is an action on both BCC and Service Birmingham.

1.12 With the exception of the CMS, the new website is functional and sits on an improved platform. As with all website launches, there remains work to be done to improve it and this will be a gradual and iterative process over the coming months for BCC and Service Birmingham.

1.13 The major objectives in support of the ‘Customer First’ and ‘Excellence in People Management’ Business Transformation Programmes have not yet been delivered but are expected within the month. When delivered, it is believed that these will contribute to the significant savings predicted from within business transformation.
Final Report – Web CMS Review – 03 03 10.doc Page 5/64

The report appears to have been in the system since March. It seems to be saying we could have done better and need to take more control over the web, but overall the millions (?) were well enough spent, even though our content management system ain’t up to much. What are you thoughts?