Maude Relaunches Revolving Door To Open Data

The government is listening to ideas about data transparency and open to triggering new business ideas

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude and business minister Edward Davey have launched another public consultation on open data to define how information on public services can be made available to the general public to best effect.

As the current government tries to steal the limelight from the previous Labour government and convince the country that David Cameron is the father of open government, this is the third round of consultancy in just over a year. Not so much open-door government as revolving-door openness.

“The UK government is determined to have the most ambitious open data agenda of any government in the world. We demonstrated that ambition recently through the prime minister’s open letter,” Maude said. “But we want to embed this approach throughout the public service and we want to hear from people about how they think we should do this.”

Wide Open To Ideas

Publishing key data on public services is a party commitment, pushing forward a theme initiated by the previous Labour government with the Freedom of Information Act in 1997. But this is a new openness that makes data available – rather than a resource that has to be requested and compiled before release. It needs wider consultation to find the scope demanded by citizens.

Just over a year ago, Maude announced that he was seeking ideas and that comments could be left on a site originally set up by Labour. The site relaunched last November and now, once again, it has been updated and is up and running.

The government has already promised access to some data – such as reports on doctors’ performances and prescribing, how hospital teams cope with treating key conditions, the effectiveness of schools in teaching a range of subjects, and criminal sentencing by the courts – but there is much more to be done.

The Cabinet Office has published a list of questions upon which it needs to find consensus:

  • how to improve citizens ‘right to data’ by establishing stronger rights for individuals, businesses and others to obtain data from public services
  • how to enforce this right and set transparency standards
  • how public service providers might be held to account for delivering open data
  • how to ensure the most useful data is collected and published
  • how the internal workings of government and the public sector can be made more open
  • how far government can help to stimulate enterprise and market-making through the use of open data

The consultancy is applicable to all UK public bodies except for those in Scotland where the separate Scottish Act applies.

“It is an incredibly brave step for any government to become this open,” Maude boasted, “but this is the approach we want to take in order to create public accountability and efficiency in our services and to drive economic and social growth.”

The transparency of data brings together various legislation that has been brought in over the past few years. Freedom of Information already gives a statutory right of access to information held by over 100,000 public authorities, including government departments, local authorities, police and fire services, schools and universities, and the NHS.

Naturally, there will be some data that is not accessible because of issues of national security, the exposure of personal data, or information relating to commercial interests.

Help To Trigger New Business Ideas

The ability for existing or start-up companies to access and use some of the data revealed may boost the economy. Creating apps around public-body data has already proved its worth through the Transport For London (TfL) DataStore.

This allows access to information such as bus and tube services (archival and live) and data collected through the Oyster card system or the Barclays Bikes service. This has allowed people such as Oliver O’Brien to develop apps and a  bike share map.

O’Brien’s app has also proved useful to TfL because it maps the most popular routes taken by Barclay Bike users. The collated information benefits TfL by indicating the best places and times to have bikes available, or where extra bike stands should be placed.

Unlike the endless consultation of the national government, the Mayor of London Boris Johnson is allowing the DataStore concept to grow organically. As Londoners discover how information can be harnessed, it fires them with ideas and creates a demand for access to other databases.

“These consultations are important for the future of open data in the UK,” said Professor Nigel Shadbolt of the UK Government Transparency Board. “I urge anyone who cares about our country’s information infrastructure or the potential for economic growth and public service accountability to give their views and suggestions.”