The Coalition’s open data agenda has been widely welcomed, but some supporters believe more steps need to be taken to ensure its ambitions are realised
The UK has been committed to releasing public sector data since early 2010, when Tim Berners-Lee worked with the government on the launch of the data.gov.uk website as part of a project to open up almost all non-personal data acquired for official purposes for free re-use.
The thinking behind opening up this data is that it will help to boost the economy by enabling businesses to develop applications around it, and to make government services more efficient. For example, a company might develop an application that informs users what NHS services are available in their local area using health data made available through data.gov.uk, and then sell advertising around it. Or, government departments could use the data to drive down procurement costs through a price comparison exercise.
The European Commission shares our government’s enthusiasm for opening up official data, pointing out in December that the gains could be in the region of £33.5bn a year if the policy was adopted across all member states.
Meanwhile back in November, the UK government revealed plans to spend £10m over the next five years setting up and running the Open Data Institute, which will be dedicated to helping industry exploit open data, and Prime Minister David Cameron pledged that data on hospitals, schools, criminal courts and transport would be made available online during 2012.
Data.gov.uk currently has more than 5,400 datasets containing such data as spend information, supplier details and survey results, all sourced from central government departments and a number of other public-sector bodies and local authorities. This store of information is constantly being added to in the hope that by making more and more data available the government will be able to save money and create new business in the private sector.
But is making public-sector data available really going to boost economic growth and drive efficiencies? It is, after all, a task government departments across the UK are going to have to allocate resources to.
Will open data free up resources?
Gartner analyst Andrea DiMaio isn’t convinced by the benefits cited by the government.
“Unfortunately the success of open data has so far been measured in the number of available datasets rather than in their actual use,” says DiMaio.
“Gartner has always challenged the sustainability of open data initiatives, and we have started getting inquiries from government clients about how to justify the effort of publishing up-to-date open data, which has to be constantly updated, when there are so many other mission-critical tasks competing for the same, decreasing funding.”
DiMaio’s point about resources is disputed by others in the industry, however.
Alex Benay, vice president of government relations for OpenText, a company that specialises in enterprise content management, believes money spent by public-sector bodies on managing and protecting their data would actually be freed up by simply making this data publicly available.
“It costs a huge amount of money to manage the information of governments. But if you start with the premise that everything is available to the public, as opposed to the premise of what needs to be available to the public, all of a sudden administrative burdens are drastically reduced,” he says.
“Governments can then focus on a much smaller amount of data that does need to be protected and secured, which will require a lot less budget. When they then have to spend money on opening up data, they can use money saved from managing less data internally.”
Harvey Lewis, analytics and research director at consultancy giant Deloitte, agrees with Benay that freeing up public data will benefit government bodies and the people they represent.
“Councils that have released their data are now starting to see applications emerge that give citizens information about public services available in their area. That’s a great use of their data,” says Lewis.
Examples of this include services that allow people to find their nearest pharmacy, plan bus routes, and find out the quality of water in their area.
“There is now a whole new interaction between the local authorities and the public that just wasn’t there before. These are things that they could never allocate resources to, but has been made possible by opening up their data”.