Open Data UK

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ABC - The Science Show - Open Data UK broadcast 11th Dec 2010

After a long campaign dating back to 2006, the UK government has released once classified data, changing the previous secrecy code purveying over government work and data sets. Naomi Fowler reports on what's changed since the once secret data has been released. So is publishing data the new default position for government in the UK? Proponents argue releasing data allows new enterprises to emerge and site satellite navigation is a prime example.

Robyn Williams:What about freedom online? You can hardly escape the wiki uproar, and what about ordinary data? How free should they be? Naomi Fowler reports from London. 

Naomi Fowler: After a long campaign in the UK for opening up non-personal data to the public, some really significant data is now being released. The British government launched in January this year with more than 2,500 datasets. Apparently that's three times more data than the US government's version. The initiative challenges the secrecy culture of successive British governments. It is also exposing the conflict between ingrained civil service practice, economic interests and the power of information technology for those who know how to champion it.

Tim Berners-Lee: We want the data, we want unadulterated data. Okay, we have to ask for raw data now, and I'm going to ask you to practice that. Okay, can you say 'raw'?

Audience: Raw!

Tim Berners-Lee: Can you say 'data'?

Audience: Data!

Tim Berners-Lee: Can you say 'now?

Audience: Now!

Tim Berners-Lee: Raw data now!

Audience: Raw data now!

Tim Berners-Lee: Practice that, it's important because you have no idea of the number of excuses people come up with to hang on to their data and not give it to you, even though you have paid for it as a taxpayer. And it's not just America, it's all over the world, and it is not just governments, of course it's enterprises as well.

Naomi Fowler: That's Tim Berners-Lee the inventor of the world wide web. As you might expect, he is enthusiastic about all kinds of data, and in recent years he's been working with the British government to start opening up non-personal public government data. Journalist Charles Arthur started the campaign Free Our Data back in 2006.

Charles Arthur: In 2009 things really got rolling when Tim Berners-Lee began pushing for the whole idea of governments making this sort of data available for free, and he then started to lobby Gordon Brown on this. Gordon Brown asked him at a dinner one evening, he said, 'Mr Berners-Lee, you've done all these things, what should Britain do next with the internet that would make a big difference?' And Tim Berners-Lee came straight back and said, 'You should make all the government datasets available for free so that people can use them,' the result being that in November of 2009 Gordon Brown announced that a lot of ordnance survey map data was going to go free, public datasets would go free, from which I conclude that it's quite surprising what you can achieve if you have the Prime Minister and the inventor of the world wide web behind you.

Naomi Fowler: Gordon Brown went on to lose the general election earlier this year, and so the open data initiative has been passed to Britain's new coalition government. The Prime Minister David Cameron says he is strongly committed to it. Here he is in one of his first podcasts to the electorate, recorded while he was travelling on a train.

Gordon Brown: If there's one thing I've noticed since doing this job, it's how all the information about government, the money it spends, where it spends it, the results it achieves is locked away in a vault marked sort of private for the eyes of ministers and officials only. In time I want our government to be one of the most open and transparent in the world. People will be the masters, the politicians are servants, and that's the way it should be.

Naomi Fowler: So far David Cameron's new government has continued to open up some large datasets. British citizens now have free access to a database of the laws of the land, government expenditure and salaries, street by street crime statistics, and the public now knows precisely what the Department for International Development spends its foreign aid money on. But decisions about which data to publish still aren't automatic. Open data enthusiasts want publishing to be the default position. They'd like the UK to follow the Australian example, adding their open data strategy into their freedom of information policy. And there are some disincentives for the British government; it makes around $550 million a year from data paid for by taxpayers. I asked Charles Arthur about it.

Charles Arthur: The question of how does the government justify the cost of doing this, the lost revenue, is one that actually I had a lot of trouble answering for the first couple of years, and then I realised that there's actually a really good example, which is staring most of us in the face every time we get into a car, and that is sat nav. How does sat nav work? Sat nav uses a system called the global positioning system which is a series of satellites put up around the Earth at quite a lot of expense by the US government. They originally put them up there for defence, so its armed forces could know where they were in the world.

It was then made available for anyone to use around about 2000 by Bill Clinton, and GPS cost the US government about $1 billion a year to run, but people in every country can use it and they can use it for things like sat nav. Sat nav is free, in effect, for citizens to use once you've bought the hardware, because picking up a GPS signal is quite difficult. It means the sat nav makers get money, it means that people who do maps get money because they can sell their maps to the sat nav makers. It means that people who are driving cars get the benefit of getting where they want to go without getting lost, which means that they save fuel, which means they also save time. So that's an example whereby making something free you're actually generating a bigger benefit, there is a virtuous circle, it all works together, it's a synergistic thing.

There are fantastic examples. Transport for London, which is the body which governs how London's transport such as its buses and its underground and its overground trains work, they've made available all the data about bus timings, tube timings, train timings, where bus stops are, where tube stops are, where train stops are, and people have started to build applications for them so that you can actually work out how long it's going to take you to get from one place to another in real time. That's the sort of thing that if they had tried to do that themselves, it would have been a project specification from hell, it would have cost millions and there would have been newspaper articles about what a ridiculous waste of money it was, whereas if you just make the data available, people can start to build it for themselves out of interest or for profit, and you get private companies start to do it because they can and because they see that there's a market there. TFL doesn't have to get into the business that it's in not in already of trying to build applications, and the people who are good at building applications don't have to get into the business of collecting the data.

Naomi Fowler: But that kind of creativity and freedom may contradict the way government and their large IT contractors work.

Ian Leaver: The whole technology world, apart from anything else, is moving at a pace that the civil service is not terribly good at keeping up with.

Naomi Fowler: IT consultant Ian Lever has worked with various government databases.

Ian Leaver: If you look across the major government departments, so you'd look into the Ministry of Defence, HM Revenue & Customs, there is pretty much the same set of suppliers who provide all of the major IT systems. So you've got the likes of Accenture, Capgemini, Fujitsu, HP, BT, a relatively small number of suppliers who have pretty much sewn up the government IT provision. And to break through the layer that that creates is going to be incredibly difficult when you give big monolithic contracts, that's when it doesn't feel right anymore, it doesn't feel like they're the best means of getting the best services delivered.

Naomi Fowler: And it's the format in which the data is published that can limit its usefulness and value. was built using open source technology, but how strong is the commitment of these huge government IT contractors to using non-proprietorial open source software. That means machine-readable formats, so no Word documents, no Excel, because that is what will truly open up the data, facilitating maximum flexibility and creativity on the part of the public to really go to town with it: cross-reference with other datasets, interpret and present it in new ways.

Ian Leaver: The way Tim Berners-Lee talks about it is great because it's very enthusiastic and all those kind of things are wonderful, but at the same time it feels very anarchic to the people that are used to running these kind of big service contracts. So I think there's a level of disruption that they're not ready for. Open source, it's not like working with Microsoft. You can point to Microsoft, you can point to their board, you can say this is the chief executive officer and this is the person that we can go to when there are problems. When things break down, we know what we've got.

With open source, the communities that build these software products sit anywhere, they're dotted around all over the world in some cases. So you get a kind of counter-intuitive environment where actually open source has a tremendously good record of fixing problems that arise, but you don't know where to go. It's not so easy for an organisation, particularly the civil service which is very typically British and staid in some of its dealings with outside organisations, and you don't feel the same sense of control, and they won't feel the same kind of sense of influence. I can't personally see it happening any time soon. So government is denying itself access to potentially some really good services.

Naomi Fowler: Are you saying that these large companies are not natural fans of open source software because the whole point of it is, and what Tim Berners-Lee is always going on about, is that it is allowed to evolve naturally and people are allowed to use this data in whatever way they want and use it in as many different applications and develop it into their own datasets. That's his whole idea, isn't it?

Ian Leaver: If you look at any big corporation, it doesn't matter what it does, whether it's IT or anything else, they want to know what they're in control of, what their risks are and what are the things that are adding to their bottom line and what are the things that are threatening or taking away from their bottom line. If you are a big company that produces software on a bespoke basis, then it's kind of hard to get your head around how all of that works and how to control it.

Naomi Fowler: What's your assessment of so far in terms of the rhetoric about what they want to do and the actual reality?

Ian Leaver: I think that's the right word for it, I think it is rhetoric at the moment. I think the intent might be real, in fact I suspect the intent is real, but it's the start of a long journey towards that kind of environment. It isn't straightforward to say we're just going to open up all the systems. If you look at most government departments, the systems that they've got in some cases will be 30, 40 years old, you'd have to do quite an extensive exercise to say, okay, this is the right kind of data that we could put out, this is where it's physically held at the moment, these are the kind of access mechanisms that we would want people to add to it and then provision for and build probably fairly bespoke style environments to actually allow that. The idea that it's open just means that at some point you're going to let somebody look at it. Actually making it available is in itself a whole different exercise.

Naomi Fowler: One of the latest datasets to be released on the website is about the performance of public sector telephone centres. There is some juicy data there on the call response rate for the National Health Service helpline telephone number, the number of employees, and so on. But all of this data is in Excel and Word format. Campaigning journalist Charles Arthur believes it's a slow burn revolution.

Charles Arthur: William Gibson, the author, said the future is here already, it's just not evenly distributed, and that's how it is with the free data thing. There are pockets where things are very intensively happening, but then there are big areas where it has not made much difference at all. Nothing happens all at once, apart from the sun coming up, and even that takes a while to reach everywhere.





New ICT Strategy = new hope?

The Cabinet Office has just released a new ICT Strategy for the UK which perhaps brings new hope to the situation.  There is a stated desire to open Government ICT provision up and make things beeter for the citizen.  The trouble is, this has all been said before.  For now the Strategy needs to be given time to kick in, there are actions that are expected within a six month time frame so that means in October there should be some successes to comment further on.

The strategy can be found here:

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