Data Policy Thoughts

A revolution in Whitehall


So be honest how many of us every expected todays’s announcement would ever come?  a day when the very conservative civil service of the United Kingdom made available very comprehensive government data sets available for free.  OK there are a few notable exceptions (OS , Royal Mail and TfL spring to mind) but as a starting point to have nearly  2500 data sets available and a community of nearly the same number of application developers is a huge success.

How often is it that the UK government can demonstrate greater openness that the United States, this is a far more impressive launch than the much admired portal.

The portal also represents a huge shift in mindset for government in the UK, I’m very proud of a letter which I received while working at the Ordnance Survey almost accusing me of sedition and threatening me with the official secrets act for blogging and suggesting the OS could make data more widely accessible.

Culture change is a term much branded about within the civil service, what we see with the data portal really is culture change.

From a technical perspective also represents the publish first and sort out the quality / metadata later paradigm which governments must follow, an evolutionary approach is vital in the fast moving world of web today, achieving perfection and accounting for all potential uses of data is not feasible and can no longer be used as an excuse not release data “as is”

The role of Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Nigel Shadbolt in this change cannot be over stated without the “star” factor of these two individuals todays announcement would not have been possible. I look forward to reading the inside story of their activities in the next edition of  Prospect Magazine which promises to be a major scoop.

Also influential with government has been the campaigning of  former innovation minister Tom Watson among others, has been edging towards this move by holding such events as Show Us a Better Way, a competition with cash prizes for government data mashups.

Today of course is not the end of the battle, we need to keep the pressure on for all public sector data holders to default to making their information available, and there is still time to express support for free access to Ordnance Survey data by taking part in the current consultation process. Evidence for why this is important is illustrated by this example, just one of many issues caused by the current licensing regime.

To paraphrase outrageously, for Open Access to Government data, this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

Written and submitted from the Google Offices, Copenhagen (55.683N, 12.571E)

7 replies on “A revolution in Whitehall”

You’re completely right, there a wave of public data heading our way which is fantastic news. I worry a] can we handle it (part of which is my interest in design) b] as you point out, the momentum must be kept up.

Ed, a bit of proofreading: “our many of us every expected ” should be “how many of us ever expected”. Did you use a mobile phone?

“… also represents the publish first and sort out the quality / metadata later paradigm which governments must follow, an evolutionary approach is vital in the fast moving world of web today, achieving perfection and accounting for all potential uses of data is not feasible and can no longer be used as an excuse not release data ‘as is’…”

This is a typical attitude of many people for whom completion of a project or the roll-out of a system is more important than the data that underlies it. The problem is that it’s the data that is the foundation of the decision making process and bad data will result in bad decisions. Well fine. As long as any use of such data is always prefixed by a “This data is may be rubbish – do not use it to make any decisions or form any opinion” disclaimer!

We’ve already had an example of this with the release of the MOT data. I would say the data is almost useless, because things like mileage and reasons for failure are not included. Some people appreciate this but others won’t be aware of it. Given the deficiencies in the data, what point is there in publishing it? Putting it in the public domain seems to be more important than whether it’s fit for purpose. Putting something in the public domain does not override all other considerations!

My last post appears to have gone. Was it the URL?Michael Blastland has written a good article on this on the BBC website.

Exactly the paradigm to follow, at least with the data in the public domain there is the opportunity for the community to review it. Let’s hope a mechanism can be developped for the community to feed back what they have found back to the powers that be.

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