Building local open data about the community is crucial to success

people networking at tech event

Image via Flickr

Local efforts to build and share Open Data about the tech community in Scotland help everyone connect. The Scottish-run website Open Tech Calendar has been at the heart of that, and they recently celebrated their 5th birthday by helping an ODI Leeds study on UK tech clusters that declared Edinburgh and Glasgow 2nd and 4th most active respectively.

Open Tech Calendar lists tech events around the UK in a wiki-style website where anyone can add or edit events. I started this after a similar project run by a local event ran into problems. I set out to do things in a different way that could make the project more robust and also make more of the resulting data.

Its Open Data was used by the ODI study to identify tech clusters. It is also imported directly by many people into their personal calendars, used on other websites and regularly posted to email lists and Slack groups.

The tech behind it

Like a wiki, every edit is versioned to ensure safety. And the first version, launched in a long weekend, was run on MediaWiki – the Open Source software behind Wikipedia – and a quickly edited plugin to support exporting calendar feeds.

A few months in, it was clear this was something the community was interested in. But it also became clear that this text wiki format would not support the simple-to-use UI/UX format that I wanted to build, and after a few months I started work on a custom PHP application.

After one year, this was replaced by a new app written in the Micro Framework Silex using Symfony components and storing its data in Postgresql. This was Open Sourced and remains the base for the website today.

This software has also been used for other projects. At the 2015 General election it listed over 1,000 hustings (public debates between the candidates) and again the resulting Open Data set was used by many charities and other election sites.

Tech in Scotland

Seeking to apply this crowd-sourced open community data philosophy to other areas, last year I  launched Tech In Scotland. This lists details of online communities and tech companies in Scotland. We are working with local events like PHP and C++ to help build up the data for everyone.

In both cases, a key thing is making sure the data set is kept up to date and correct. While there is no silver bullet solution, lots of tricks are used to try and help. For instance, on other web sites someone could set up a recurring event which goes on for ever, but in real life the event then ends shortly afterwards. To prevent this kind of inaccurate data, Open Tech Calendar only lets people recur an event forwards for 6 months and then later it will prompt them to come back and add more if it’s still going.

Open Data aspect

The Open Data aspect is something we are very keen to push. When people hear about the project, they often think it would be easy to do as there is lots of existing Open Data out there we can re-use.

While there is some, there is nowhere near as much as people think and this has caused problems for us. We found one event that didn’t even update their own website, let alone provide any Open Data! So we are also keen to push others to make Open Data available that we and others can re-use.

Open Tech Calendar and Tech In Scotland are supported by our sponsors – thanks to everyone who has helped over the years! While this has brought in a small amount of money, this has always been a labour of love for me and so it’s great to hear from people who find them useful.

This approach has developed a bedrock of Open Data that has served the community well, and we look forwards to seeing where the Scottish Tech scene goes in the future!

 

About the author

James Baster is an Edinburgh-based developer who runs Open Tech Calendar and Tech In Scotland.