Government ‘Needs To Embrace Open Data Faster’

Tom Brewster is TechWeek Europe's Security Correspondent. He has also been named BT Information Security Journalist of the Year in 2012 and 2013.

Shakespeare Review proposes getting data out faster, even if it means it is messier

The UK government has been told it should ramp up its open data strategy if it wants to reap the economic and social benefits it can provide.

The Shakespeare Review, led by YouGov CEO Stephan Shakespeare, has made a number of recommendations, which the Cabinet Office has welcomed.

Last year, the government’s open data initiative was slammed by the Commons Public Accounts Committee for sloppily presenting information to the public and now it has been told it isn’t acting fast enough to get data out in the first place.

One recommendation is for every government department to determine what their most important dataset is and release it in readable formats for free, whilst making a commitment to maintain and update that dataset.

Open data governmentMining open data

They should also commit to publishing all datasets in anonymised form as quickly as possible and without concerns about quality, where there is a clash between speed to publication and quality, according to the report.

It also recommended an immediate programme of investment in basic data science through academic institutions.

The government should seek to establish a full ‘National Data Strategy’ that contains all the recommendations, the report said.

To assuage the fears of privacy advocates, Shakespeare suggested use of much higher penalties for the misuse of public sector data or even imprisonment “in cases of deliberate and harmful misuse of data”. UK data privacy watchdog, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), has previously given its backing to jail sentences for particularly severe breaches of data protection law.

“Britain has a competitive advantage in that we have centralised public services that collect vast amounts of data, the value of which remains largely untapped,” YouGov’s Shakespeare said.

“If we play it right we can break free of the shackles of a low-growth economy and – rather than being seen as an obstacle – government can become a key driver in this transformative process.”

Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude said the Shakespeare Review was “an important contribution to how we unleash the potential in open data, and we will now consider its recommendations”.

“The release of open data is vital to help the UK get ahead in the global race,” Maude added.

“Research supporting this review finds that the social and economic benefits of public sector information to the UK are already worth over £7 billion. We want to see that grow.”

Deloitte has released a report estimating the direct value of public sector information to be around £1.8bn, but taking in the wider social and economic benefits, the full value is at least £6.8 billion.

YouGov surveys have shown the UK public, including those with little interest in open data, were behind the release of more government information.

Even where medical data is concerned, there is little fear of releasing sensitive information, as 70 percent of respondents said they thought the government should collect and make public all that it can about the healthcare system. That’s despite recent uproar over plans from the Department of Health to collate people’s medical records in a centralised manner.

A global open data race

A big fear is that the UK will end up behind other nations in the open data boom, especially the US. Earlier this month, the White House issued an executive order requiring all US federal government data to be open and machine-readable.

“Whilst the report provides a solid set of recommendations, the ODI would like to have seen a greater emphasis placed on the role that public sector information can play in innovation. When it comes to open data, the UK has the leadership position, so why aren’t we being more ambitious?” said the Open Data Institute’s CEO, Gavin Starks.

“What happens now on the back of this report is crucial in unlocking the value of open data. If the government is serious about making data open, it has to be made available and fast.”

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