ICT Telecoms and Technology

Data & democracy

Internet founder and Whitehall advisor Tim Berners-Lee discusses data apps with developers in London, 12 March.

How open government and data releases make opportunities for developers, citizens and journalists.

Data release is not a natural vote-winner but for governments on both sides of the Atlantic, it is increasingly a way to demonstrate openness, a quality clearly valued by voters. The state has long been the largest collector of statistics but has been traditionally less keen on releasing them to its citizens in a way they can understand.

Barack Obama’s first presidential memorandum committed his administration to being transparent and open. In particular, information would be disclosed “rapidly … in forms that the public can readily find and use” with the help of new technologies.

The result was the Open Government Initaitive and its website (www.data.gov), which has an extensive list of raw datasets held by the US Government. All can be rated for their quality, although to date these polls have been based on a small sample of readers. Agencies are also assessed for their openness. Analytical tools, contributed by federal agencies, are also listed so citizens can make use of what they download.

In a similar vein, openness about data has been a regular theme for Gordon Brown over the last year.

In November came the news that Ordnance Survey map data in Great Britain will become more openly available; the mapping agency is well-known for protecting its copyright.

This part of the Smarter Government initiative (issue 34, pages 52-53) culminated in the launch of the UK Government’s own data release website (www.data.gov.uk) in January, which also lists datasets by organisation.

To date, the Department of Health and Department for Children, Schools and Families have published the most datasets i.e. 368 and 261 respectively, so the site is currently most useful to English patients and parents.

A total of 608 records mentioned Northern Ireland, including 2008 road traffic injury statistics, a statistical summary of women in the province, an analysis of young people and sport and several local references in UK-wide datasets e.g. on agriculture, energy and defence.

While all internet users can access the data, some will be more interested in it than others. Application developers stand to benefit most from the releases; indeed the Government has been keen to encourage them to generate new ideas and software.

Apps from the UK site include the Northern Ireland crime map, expenditure map (which visualises public spending by region), the self-explanatory Where Did My Tax Go?

The crime map uses Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency statistics from 2001 to 2008 and was developed by web engineering studio Banjax; it’s also hosted on the Belfast Telegraph website.

Data releases therefore can help developers use their skills and produce useful products for people wanting to find out more about their neighbourhoods or how their money is used.

Another use, perhaps yet to be explored, is for journalists, a profession whose number skills are traditionally not as strong as their writing.

From the media’s point of view, www.data.gov.uk is a large central store for statistics, which makes them easier to find in the first place. Relevant figures can then be used to check facts, add detail and hold government to account – another ‘democratic’ use of data.

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