The British government is doubling down on the notion that open data can be a catalyst for increased government transparency, civic utility and economic prosperity.
Yesterday, the United Kingdom’s Cabinet Office hosted an event in London, England to highlight the release of a new white paper on “unleashing the potential of open data,” linked at the bottom of the post, and the relaunch of a Data.gov.uk, the country’s open data platform. The site now has over 9,000 data sets on it, according to the Cabinet Office.
In the video below, Francis Maude, minister for the Cabinet Office, talks about the white paper, which was the result of a public consultation over the last year.
Assessing the open data white paper
“I think it’s all good overall,” commented author Dr. Ben Goldacre, via email.
“The UK government have been saying the right things about data for a long time: that it’s the 21st century’s raw material, that it has economic and social benefits, that privacy issues need caution, and so on. That in itself is reassuring, as governments can sometimes be completely clueless about this kind of stuff.
They also get the nerdy details: that standards matter, and so on. Also, all the stuff about building reciprocal relationships with developers, building coder capacity, two way relationships to improve datasets etc is all great. The star rating system for departments is neat, as one lesson from this whole area is simple structured public feedback often improves services.
The main concern is that the core reference data hasn’t been released for free. The Postcode Address File allows developers to convert addresses into postcodes: this kind of dataset is like the road network of the digital domain, and it needs to be open with free movement so businesses and services can meet users. Our excellent Ordnance Survey maps are still locked up at the more detailed levels, which is problematic since a lot of geographical data from local government uses OS data too, so release of that is hindered. Companies House data is also still pay only.
The Cabinet Office seem to have been fighting hard for this stuff, which is great, but it’s proving difficult to release.”
I strongly agree with Simon Rogers, the editor of the Datablog, that one of the most significant elements of the white paper is its acknowledgement of the need to engage developers and solicit their feedback on the quality and availability of open government data.
“Traditionally, government has almost ignored developers, even as prime users of its data,” wrote Simon Rogers at the Guardian. “This commitment to take that community into account is probably the most striking part of this White Paper, which will allow users to ask government for specific datasets, feedback on how they’ve used them and, crucially, ‘inform us when there are anomalies or mistakes in our data.'”
The past several years have shown such engagement is a critical aspect of building communities around open data. Directly engaging entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, industry and academia is, as US CTO Todd Park’s success with stimulating innovation around open health data has demonstrated, necessary for downstream success. Publishing high quality open data online is, in that context, necessary but unsufficient for better downstream outcomes for citizens. In the context of the costs incurred through publishing open data, this investment of time and energy in community engagement can’t be underemphasized – and the inclusion of this strategic element in the white paper is notable.
All that being said, an actual strategy for developer engagement was not published in the white paper – stay tuned on that count.
UPDATE: “We are in the early adopting moments of the Open Data revolution and the first achievement of its pioneers will be to secure key improvements in quality and access,” commented Tim Kelsey (@tkelsey1) via email. “Once the data is cleaner, more liquid and reliable then we can, in my view, expect fast entrepreneurial and public service exploitation.”
Kelsey, until this month, was the executive director of transparency and open data in the UK Cabinet Office. As of July 2, he became the national director for patients and information at the UK’s National Health Service’s new Commissioning Board. He made the following additional comments further on open data and the white paper:
The British Government published ‘Unleashing the Potential – the Open Data White Paper’ last month. It contains a number of policy commitments which seek to establish a ‘presumption to publication’ in British public services and put Transparency at the centre of its strategy for public service reform. David Cameron, the Prime Minister, has made Open Data a top priority because of the evidence that this public asset can transform outcomes and effectiveness, as well as accountability.
There is a good evidence base to support this – probably the most famous example is how, in cardiac surgery, surgeons on both sides of the Atlantic have reduced the number of patient deaths through comparative analysis of their outcomes. Another good example is the way in which many cities have used Open Data to improve the effectiveness of their commissioning of services like waste collection. McKinsey recently forecast the value of public data assets in the EU (in terms of improved productivity in public services and economic growth) at around 250 billion euros per annum. The White Paper details dozens of examples in which entrepreneurs and public services are already extracting social and economic value from Open Data.
So far, the UK published around 9,000 data sets on data.gov.uk – just relaunched as a much more functional data extraction tool. But this is a just a start – the key lesson I think we have learned over the last two years is that Open Data only delivers impact when the quality of the asset is reliable enough and this has been a big challenge. The White Paper contains a number of proposals to ensure that, in future, government departments comply with standards to ensure that data releases are all accessible, machine readable, re-useable and of an appropriate quality. Each department has now published its own Open data plans. These are not simple requirements and quickly expose long term problems in the integrity of public data collections.
Maude, Berners-Lee and Pollock on open data
Earlier this spring, I interviewed Francis Maude, the United Kingdom’s minister for the Cabinet Office, about the responsibilities and opportunities for open government and transparency, including its relationship to prosperity and security. The video of our interview is embedded below:
The British government has also now officially adopted the “5 star” rubric of one of its most celebrated citizens, World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, for evaluating the quality of open government data. Below, I’ve embedded my interview on open data with Berners-Lee, which remains relevant today:
For another view from civil society on what, exactly, open data is and why it matters, watch my interview with Rufus Pollock, the co-founder of the Open Knowledge Foundation, below. The Open Knowledge Foundation supports the, Comprehensive Knowledge Archive Network (CKAN), the open source open data platform software that underpins the Data.gov.uk site.