Government Open Data Work ‘Not Good Enough’

Max 'Beast from the East' Smolaks covers open source, public sector, startups and technology of the future at TechWeekEurope. If you find him looking lost on the streets of London, feed him coffee and sugar.

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What’s the point in releasing huge amounts of information if no one knows what to do with it?

The government’s open data initiative has been slammed for sloppily presenting information to the public.

The Commons Public Accounts Committee published a report that praised the government’s efforts to make public sector information more transparent, but said more work was needed to truly tap into the scheme’s potential.

Entitled “Implementing the Transparency Agenda”, the report said that although more than 9,000 datasets were released by the government so far, most of them have been issued without any consideration for cost, risk or benefit.

Headless chickens

The Transparency Agenda is a pledge by David Cameron’s government to make public sector information more open, first outlined in 2010. A drive for open data could lead to stronger accountability in the public sector, help improve services and stimulate economic growth by offering new information to businesses.

According to the report, since the programme was announced, public bodies in both local and central government have significantly increased the volume and range of information they release. A lot of it is linked to the portal, envisioned by Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

Nevertheless, the committee has found that the government still has a lot of work to do to deliver on its promises. It suggested that the responsible parties should thoroughly analyse what it costs to release the data and what potential benefits it can bring.

At the moment, too much government data is poorly presented and difficult to interpret, according to the report. In addition, it often contains “gaps in information” that make bigger data sets useless, the committee said.

“It is simply not good enough to dump large quantities of raw data into the public domain. It must be accessible, relevant and easy for us all to understand,” said Margaret Hodge MP, chair of the Committee of Public Accounts.

The report suggested that many public sector service providers are hiding their data behind “commercial confidentiality”, claiming that information should be freely available wherever taxpayers’ money is spent.

Industry players have also criticised the government’s lack of clarity when it comes to presenting information. “Without putting the processes in place for citizens and businesses to interpret the deluge of Open Data, it’s like being offered a room with a view when the window has frosted glass,” said Bert Oosterhof, director of technology EMEA at Informatica.

“Data has been described as the raw material of a new industrial revolution. But any raw material needs the right process to get the most out of it.  It is the tools and technologies that harness and gain return from data that will propel the UK economy forward in this digital era.”

The government has various plans for open data. It has called on schools to publish information on spending per pupil so different educational establishments can be compared in terms of efficiency.

It is hoped that the Open Data Institute, established this year near the Silicon Roundabout, will help the government and businesses exploit the opportunities created by the release of public data.

As for individual privacy, the Cabinet Office had set out policies and controls for personal data protection in a separate White Paper released in June.

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