Public data and public information interests us a lot in Electric Mill. A good reason for this is that you will often find that government agencies, departments and other public bodies – while they may publish information – will normally do so in formats which while fulfilling duty, are not exactly easy to read, interpret or compare.
Think Microsoft Word or PDF files and you are pretty much along the right tracks. The reason for this of course is very simple. All the types of bodies that I have mentioned use a website that serves up pages through a Content Management System (CMS).
The main purpose of the CMS is to serve up this content; bread and butter functionality within these systems do not generally include specific capability or integration of data from other applications – at least in my experience. Likewise, the possibility of the provider providing bespoke services development around data integration is unlikely – it is just not their core business.
From a technical point of view, this would be the main reason why we don’t see easily accessible, drillable data; It would be unfair to suggest to think these are the only ones of course – you know what I mean….
In the UK, campaigns such as Free Our Data sprung up in reaction to these limitations and lack of availability. Closer to home, Conor at web2ireland outlined his thoughts – ambitious ones – for an API for Government which garnered a lot of comments.
That’s the background, what about an example?
At the beginning of 2006, Electric Mill were doing a fair bit of healthcare consulting, and it seemed like a good idea to think about clever ways to present information that people were interested in.
At the time, Hospital A&E attendance figures were hotly discussed, disputed and most importantly compared. We’re still listening to these claims and counter claims 2 years later.
So the obvious example then was to use these up to date and well maintained figures – and present them in a way easy to report and compare. Both the Health Service Executive and Irish Nurses Organisation maintain daily figures. Who is correct? – we’re not going to call that – but we did understand that the method of collection and reporting varied between the two.
So with a little bit of midnight coding, we came up with an easy way to compare A&E attendance figures in Ireland – you can read more about the background to the thought processes and the midnight coding here.
While we gathered and inputted both sets of figures from the HSE and INO, in the end we turned off the latter results; but even just with the one set of figures you can easily compare, graph and export to Excel, figures from each hospital on monthly intervals.
There were two downsides to this process. The first was obvious – we manually entered the figures for a 12 month period. This was pretty laborious. The second was a tin hat of sorts. In late May 2006 – the HSE changed their method of reporting. This meant that direct comparison of figures with the INO was no longer possible, and also the data input method we had originally developed needed modification. Hands up – we just never got around to it, which was a bit of a shame.
In a future post, we will introduce another Electric Mill public data project that we think Irish people will find useful. More anon.