Using Google Docs to free your data

Councillor Allowances, published to the City of Lincoln Council Website via Google Docs
Councillor Allowances, published to the City of Lincoln Council Website via Google Docs

I’m very pleased to announce that a project long in gestation has been released to the public today; the first heavy integration of Google Docs into the City of Lincoln Council website. I’d previously dabbled with this to publish usage metrics on our website here, but the page we launched this morning displays details of councillor allowances; more mainstream, public data.

The process is simple – copy and paste your XLS spreadsheet into a Google Spreadsheet, hit the big blue “Share” button and select “Publish as a Web Page”. Select the sheets you wish to publish (if you have many), tick “Automatic Publishing” and then select the flavour you want. First off I used the “HTML to embed in a page” option – this gave me the iFrame that allows the user to read the document in the page without downloading a PDF or navigating away from our site. I then grabbed links for CSV and RSS flavours to encourage reuse and resyndication, and finally provided links to a PDF version and standalone web version to allow the user choice.

But why is this better? Here’s some of the benefits of this approach:

  • We don’t force the user to download a document to read it – the information is presented to them right there on the page.
  • Google will automatically convert the document to reusable flavours – we can publish these and encourge reuse.
  • It’s easier to maintain – instead of having to upload a new version of the document, change links on the site, remove the old document etc, etc, all we need do is update the remote file on Google Docs.

There are a few cons, however:

  • There has to be some consideration on how this is managed – as an organisation we do hold sensitive data which could easily be leaked through something like Google Docs so…
  • …Google Docs is banned across most of our network (not boasting, but as web guy I get special access). This makes it a problem for officers to get on board and help republish this data.
  • There could be accessibility issues – I need to do some testing in this area but I’m not ruling it out as yet.

On a whole, though, this integration should work to make data more accessible and make it easier for users to read documents on our website that they would have had to download in the past. I’m hoping that we can move to integrate this across the website and will be keeping this blog up-to-date as this moves ahead…

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6 thoughts on “Using Google Docs to free your data

  1. Hi Andrew,
    It’s really interesting for non-techie people like me to see this – thanks! I couldn’t make the RSS link work though – seemed to be a repeat of the PDF link (or I could be being extremely thick).

  2. This is a really interesting development Andrew, thanks for the share. And particularly interesting that you’ve used councillors’ allowances/expenses as the example.

  3. Hi all, thanks for the comments!

    @ x333xxx – I used councillor expenses on this as it was something that needed publishing on the site anyway and kind of fit this project/experiment.

    @ Helen – hey there! Good to see you’re coming to the GovCamp! 🙂 I’m hoping to do a session on this there where, equipment permitting, I want to run a live demo and discuss possible other uses for the tech. You’re right, the RSS lik is wrong – d’oh! As for the advantages of publishing data like this I really see two:

    * the ease of updating the information going forwards; as it uses a spreadsheet interface there is no messing with HTML or clumsy WYSIWYG’s – the tabbing nature of Google Sheets also allows for older data to be archived

    * also the openness of the data; as Google can publish this spreadsheet in a number of data formats, you can expose the information to people who may want to mash it, repurpose it, combine it into a larger project, all without having to invest in expensive technology or time to perform the conversion

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