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A basic explanation for policy makers

Page history last edited by ingridk 11 years, 3 months ago


The previous Labour government made significant strides in opening up government data.  The ground breaking data.gov.uk initiative prompted the release of huge numbers of central government held data sets, some of which are centrally-collated local government data (e.g. national indicator sets and some financial data).  In one of the last policy announcements of the previous government, Gordon Brown pledged to release even more public data along with other initiatives in Building Britain’s Digital Future.  Although not mentioned in the headlines, local government data was a key element in the expansion of open data and the personalised portals to services for citizens.

In the run-up to the election the Conservatives were supportive of the open data initiative.  Under the coalition government, some of the initiatives such as promised funding for the Web Sciences Institute have been slashed or abandoned, but their commitment to open data remains strong.  Not only are they pushing for more data to be published, but they are also pressing for new types of data to be released, for example salaries, job titles and expenditure in both central and local government.  A letter from the Prime Minister on 31 May 2010, set out the governments initial ambitions for open data which includes publishing local government expenditures greater than £500. 

Open data and local government:

The data.gov.uk project which had a public launch in January has focused on the ‘easiest’ sets of data to expose.  But it was always the plan to include local government data. The Local Government Data Panel was established to support local government in releasing data sets in a linked data format.  On 4 June, greater clarity was provided on the CLG site about what's expected in the first tranche of public data.Shortly afterwards, Minister of State for CLG Eric Pickles indicated that legislation will follow if councils are reluctant to share this information accessibly online.

Some councils have been making strides with linked and open data, for example through the Open Elections Data Project which encouraged councils to use ‘free’ fixes to publish local elections data. But for now, there are only a handful of examples.  Most notably the GLA which has been working across London, Warwickshire, Windsor and Maidenhead and Lichfield District Council.  Local government on the whole has not made open or linked data a priority and is unlikely to be prepared on the whole to take advantage of the opportunities of linked and open data.  

Key points about open and linked data

  1. The UK has made amazing strides in opening up non-personal data held by government  in the last 12 months.  Data.gov.uk has pushed up the global stakes in accountability and transparency.   But there is still al lot more to do in expanding and improving the accessibility to government data and in making use of the data.
  2. Most of attention so far has been on central government data, but local government data is where the real gains can be made.  The coalition government is putting pressure on local government to open more data, not least the requirement that all expenditure over £500 is made public within 6 months.  Councils can do this the lazy way by dumping lists into .pdfs, or we can grab the opportunity to publish this openly as linked data which gives us amazing benchmarking and efficiency opportunities.
  3. Open data and linked data are not the same thing.  Information can be made open, but published in formats (like .pdfs or locked excel spreadsheets) that makes it pretty much useless and difficult to combine with other data sets.  That’s not real transparency.
  4. Linked data is the ability to add one data set to another data set and use it for further applications - what’s called mashups.  To do this we need to make some changes to the way we present information and we need some naming standards - or ontologies.  These aren’t necessarily expensive changes, but they do require some skill and effort.
  5. Linked data does not have to be open data.  Public services would benefit tremendously from using linked data formats.  It means that we could stop spending resources on data aggregation and start spending it on analysis and action.  Linked data can be used in secure settings to help partners share personal, sensitive or commercial information on performance and resources and help better target those in need or areas for improvement.
  6. There are lots of potential benefits to linked and open data.   Most of them fall under enhancing democracy and accountability, making useful applications for citizens and consumers and better use of information by government itself.  All of them have huge efficiency opportunities.  We’re only at the beginning of realising the benefits.
  7. Few councils in the UK are really doing very much with open and linked data.  But we can look to these early leaders and examples in the US for potential benefits and key lessons.
  8. There are some substantial cultural and institutional barriers to opening up government data.  And we could easily fall into the trap of endlessly arguing about standards and not just getting on with it.  But if we work together, we can crack this and reap the rewards.


Comments (1)

Tim Davies said

at 11:49 am on Jun 7, 2010

Hey Ingrid.

Good intro, although few quick thoughts:

- I'm not sure the 'Web Sciences Institute' was ever truly related to open data initiatives. It was more something Nigel Shadbolt and TBL have been pushing for more generally, that they secured because of close access to govt. through the data.gov.uk programme - but it was never going to be solely focussed on government data. The Web Science agenda is far broader. I'd leave this out of any intro for policy makers to avoid confusion.

-As in my comment over on the CoP platform - helping people see the progression of Raw Data -> Linked Data is useful - rather than diving straight in at Linked & Open Data where there is a risk rejecting Linked Data means rejecting Open Data...

-I'm not sure all the points 1 - 8 are backed by good evidence yet (particularly 3, 6 and 7). But then, as that's the focus of my MSc I would say that.... however, the serious point is that we need to make sure the statements about the benefits of open data are measured and watertight. For e.g. Many of the benefits of <i>open data</i> can be said to be in the realm of democracy and accountability; but when it comes to linked data, at the moment we mostly only have proof-of-concept in the democratic/accountability realm - and the proven benefits are more in the economic space...

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