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From pinch-point to pyramid

Iterations on ways of understanding the role of data portals.

Published onMar 25, 2022
From pinch-point to pyramid

One of the concepts we brought into the design sprint was the ‘portal hourglass’ developed early on in our review of the literature. Here’s how we described the hourglass idea:

Drawing on the model of the Internet Hourglass Model [1], where the TCP/IP acts as the common connection point allowing many different network and physical layers (the bottom of the hourglass) to support many protocols and applications (the top of the hourglass), I’ve found it can be useful to think of open data research through the concept of a ‘portal hourglass’. That is, the (open government data) portal is seen as the common interface point between many disparate datasets, agencies, agendas and processes inside an organisation, and many different (potential) applications of, uses for, and engagements with, that data outside the organisation.

As already noted that this role, as a common interface layer, places considerable pressure on the portal. However, implicit in the hourglass model, is the idea that, if technical protocols are designed and implemented well, the overall ecosystem still benefits from the ‘narrow neck’.

However, as we explored civic engagement uses of data during our design sprint, the limitations of an hourglass model became increasingly clear. Ultimately, many civic uses of data are not concerned with decoupling internal and external data use, but about using data to build better connections between different data stakeholders.

Here, the portal hourglass represents not only a pressure-point, but also a pinch-point: restricting flows of communication that should instead be facilitated. No amount of protocol standardisation, or technical abstraction at the portal level could can meet the full range of user needs that exist around access to, and engagement with, data. 

The data portal as a pinch point

So, in the work coming out of our design sprint, we move away from a the hourglass analogy, to instead sketch a more flexible model that shows how, when providing open data is seen as a purely technical and portal-centric project, data portals do act as a pinch-point, but that when the portal is seen as one of a number of interventions and services supporting data access, a much wider range of productive data re-uses, and data enabled relationships, can be supported.

The portal as part of a wider range of tools and services: enabling, rather than restricting, communication.

In the diagram above, we’ve started to sketch this out, looking at the range of surrounding tools and services that might form part of work to promote data access for civic engagement (and other forms of value generation). This does not remove the portal from the picture, or argue against the need for further technical development of the portal layer. However, it highlights that, when the goal is to support civic engagement through data, the most important areas of focus may lie elsewhere.


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