Making government data available to everyone

Last Updated 22 January 2010, 16:40 IST

Yet until recently not many non-technical people concerned themselves with data and how it could be used better.

That’s changing, and changing quickly. There are growing expectations of greater accountability and transparency of public bodies. New technologies allow data to be managed and re-used quickly and cost-effectively. A greater number of people have the innovation and the skills to use data. And organisations from government to the private sector, from voluntary groups to the media are hungry for data.

This combination leads to increasing calls and a growing recognition that the data the government has should be made available for re-use.

Sometimes we see value in data simply being presented in new ways which make its meaning more apparent, for instance through a graphic or geographical visualisation — such as the map of bicycle accidents or, in an earlier age, Dr John Snow’s map of the Soho cholera outbreak.

However data has a particular value when you can use common elements — such as location — to link it with other data to discover new things. The ‘silos of government’ are often reflected in similar silos of data. But it’s now possible to take data about different services and present it in terms of where you live. We see examples of this in the ‘Places’ data work by the department of communities and local government and demonstrated by the ‘Postcode Paper’.

It’s re-use of data in new — and often unexpected — ways that creates both social value and opportunities for economic growth. It’s not our job to say where data might be useful; it’s our job to unleash it and allow businesses and independent developers to build innovative services which they can then deliver to users. That’s the story of technology through the years — and the way the World Wide Web itself has grown over the last 20 years.

Seven months ago Gordon Brown appointed us to help drive the government’s programme to free up its public data for re-use. In that time we’ve talked to the cabinet and to individual ministers, and with many civil servants; we have involved over 2,400 people in our developer community to learn what data they want and how they want to access it; and we have brought together into one place an initial collection of over 2,500 datasets from across government which can be re-used freely and easily.

Good begining
‘Putting the Frontline First: Smarter Government’, published in December, set out the overall strategy on Public Data. It published key principles for the release and reuse of government’s non-personal data; a commitment to release certain key, and much requested, datasets in weather, transport and health over the next few months, and consultation on freeing up key data from the Ordnance Survey with the expectation of this being from April 1.

The government has also signalled its commitment to move toward Linked data standards. Whether you want to use small snippets for a live widget or to mine it for trends across dozens of different areas of work, Linked Data can provide a consistent and low-maintenance way of supplying and re-using data.

Today marks another step along the path: making the ‘beta’ of data.gov.uk available to everyone, whether in the wider community of interest or one of our registered developers. The very idea of a beta release is exciting — it is not large scale IT procurement — rather a platform built quickly using agile project management to provide a core capability that can be extended easily and at low cost. This is how most innovative software is built in the age of the web.

What’s more data.gov.uk is not a big database itself. It’s more of a catalogue of the non-personal ‘public data’ now being made available on the websites of individual government departments. But for the first time we have created a single online place where those looking for government data can go to find it, without having to know which department holds what and where it is.

This is an important step in setting the groundwork for further progress. Over the next few months we will build on this beta with more functionality. We are already working with departments, agencies and local authorities to release more data month by month. We will increase the use of ‘linked data’ standards. Our ambition is to make the release of data part of the ‘business as usual’ of public bodies.
Data.gov.uk is not finished. In fact, we hope it never is: there will always be scope to add more data as it is collected and to give more help to those using it to make economically or socially valuable applications. However we have created the platform and the community for moving forward together.

(Published 22 January 2010, 16:38 IST)

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