Open data initiative gathers momentum

12 Nov 2009 View Comments
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Stephen Timms

After years of talk but little action, the government’s plan to open up state data online is finally gathering momentum.

Last month, the Cabinet Office set up a beta version of www.data.gov.uk with more than 1,000 datasets for developers to test the potential for re-using information. Currently, the site can only be accessed by registered developers, but the government hopes to open it to the public next month.

Further reading

In addition, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, brought in by Gordon Brown earlier this year to oversee the project, recently met the Cabinet to update them on progress ­ reportedly leaving them in awe.

At a recent conference hosted by IT industry body Intellect, Stephen Timms, the minister for Digital Britain, said: “More datasets will go up between now and the beginning of next year and we will look to increase the number on [the www.data.gov.uk site] every month.”

The move was recommended by the Power of Information Review in 2007 but developers had been skeptical of the government’s commitment to the project after slow progress in making information available.

However, this is changing. The government’s renewed commitment to the project has been mirrored by increasing enthusiasm among developers keen to show what they can do with the data.

Emma Mulqueeny, who is supporting several government departments in putting information online, ran two events in recent months called Rewired State where developers were given government data and asked to develop applications using it.

The results were impressive (see box) and included an application that provides information on local bus routes as well as timetables when a postcode was entered.

“The following weekend Boris Johnson announced a 10-year, £20m project to do the same thing,” said Mulqueeny.

“The sooner more data is online, the sooner these developers can get working ­ and it will cost the taxpayer virtually nothing,” she said.

This is a message often trumpeted by developers. And the same developers have long accused Directgov of trying to control information when it should just publish it in its raw form.

Emer Coleman, who is heading up a project at the Greater London Authority to put London’s information online, has the same view.

“The word from developers is clear ­ get the information out there, in whatever form it is in, and they’ll figure out a way to use it,” she said.

Many are worried that bureaucratic concerns over how to release data, in which format and on what platform will lead to a delay in publication, meaning more multimillion-pound government projects will be launched when the same job could be done for free.

There is still a degree of coercion required to encourage government departments to make their information available ­ it needs a transparency that is anathema to many civil servants in Britain. But people are coming around and the benefits could be huge, according to Coleman.

“Not only will it transfer costs out of the public sector but it will allow people to make more informed decisions about the effectiveness of various local services as the public sector enters a huge fiscal squeeze,” she said.

How open access to state data might benefit society

Creating applications that use raw government data can throw up interesting results. Here are a few examples of tools created by developers:

  • One developer, Tom Taylor, used transport and central government data to create a “newspaper” for anyone moving into an area. It offers information on transport, health, education and crime in one document based on a postcode entry.
  • Another application, created by Sam Smith and known as Jobcentreproplus, informs users of all the local jobs near their postcode.
  • A project picked up by the government’s Central Office of Information saw two teenagers develop an application that plotted a safe route to school based on crime data.
  • Another developer created a postcode-based application that gave users information on local bus routes and timetables.
  • One developer mined Companies House data to create Companies Openhouse, a system that made all the Companies House data available 24 hours a day. (Currently, this information is only available during office hours.) The system also made the data more searchable.

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