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Open data in the UK: a job half done

Charlotte Jee | Aug. 13, 2015
It's five years since the government started officially promoting open data: has the policy been a success?

Many UK government bodies are still 'a long way' from routinely publishing their data, open data expert Sir Nigel Shadbolt has warned.

Since 2010 the government has officially promoted the publication of open data: on schools' performance, local crime statistics and civil servants' salaries, to name but a few.

The stated aim was to improve transparency, but also to boost economic growth thanks to new startups expected to be created on the back of the newly-released data.

However some, including Shadbolt, worry it has taken its eye off the ball recently.

"It's the routine availability of data that provides a resource to make stuff happen. And we're quite a long way away from that," he told ComputerworldUK in an interview.

Politicians "need to be constantly reminded that this is still an issue. It's not job done. They often have quite a limited attention span, so it's a long haul really," he adds.

In June 2009 Shadbolt and World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee were appointed as advisors to the UK government.

They led the development of data.gov.uk, a single website for UK public data launched in 2010. The push for public bodies to publish their data continued under the coalition government, with support from Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude.

In 2012 Shadbolt and Berners-Lee set up the Open Data Institute (ODI), which helps to incubate startups based on open data.

The institute has trained 1,500 people in open data, has 300 members, over 25 startups who have gone or are going through its incubator scheme and has influenced policy, for example nudging the government to appoint a chief data officer earlier this year, according to Shadbolt.

"The best example I always give: TfL's transport data in London means you have the best transport apps in the UK. You don't have to pay for them, they're developed by a community, using better data than we've ever had. It's a great example of where you can take a sector and everybody's got more value from it," he says.

Most importantly perhaps, open data has gone from a 'wacky' fringe topic to a mainstream concept within government, and one few would argue against, at least publicly.

But many in the open data and government community say these achievements, although significant, should be viewed as just the first step.

"Open data like all ideas has a currency we have to prove out the initial euphoria: here is where it makes a difference, here is why it's important. Even though the government is relatively pleased with its position and where it's got to in the UK, there is so much more to do," Shadbolt says.

 

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