Open data rankings may put UK on top, but more work is needed to realise the benefits

More data - that’s the ticket. Jonathan Gray

The UK government has been ranked first in the world for its transparency and the ease of accessing government information by the World Wide Web Foundation’s OpenData barometer. The report echoes the Open Knowledge Foundation’s findings published in its Open Data Index last month, which awarded the UK the same top slot.

But both reports criticise governments, including Britain’s, for the slow progress made in unravelling government data. In fact, it’s clear that real progress is not nearly rapid enough – the percentage of datasets released as “open data” that truly comply with the definition reaches only a modest 11%.

This is a missed opportunity, because the evidence suggests that opening up the vast reams of data collected by public bodies brings economic benefits for society. By publishing data in a freely accessible and useful form it can be harnessed by organisations to offer fresh insights, undiscovered efficiencies and new ways of doing things.

Economic boost

Consultants McKinsey estimate the potential value of open data to business and public administration as high as US$3 trillion per annum. The Omidyar Network paints a similar picture: its 2014 report predicts that the implementation of the Open Data Charter could drive more than half of the G20 nations’ 2% growth targets for the next five years. A global supply-and-value chain is emerging, generating new products and services driven by data.

More than five years after the launch of the first national open data portals in the US and UK, they are becoming common at all administrative levels.

The Open Government Partnership (OGP) has grown from eight countries in September 2011 to 65. Initiatives such as the Open Data Index, the Open Data Barometer and the Open Data Monitor explore the topologies of this vast, constantly changing landscape spanning thousands of repositories worldwide with hundreds of thousands of datasets.

While the majority of data providers come from the public sector, there is rising interest from industry too. The Cabinet Office in the UK established the world’s first Open Data Institute (ODI) in November 2012, with the aim of supporting those working in the open data supply chain. Ten start-up firms are currently in their business incubation program, from which six have already graduated, securing more than £2m in contracts and investments. The idea has won support in Europe as well, giving rise to the European Open Data Incubator, due to launch this year.

The a-b-c of open data. notbrucelee, CC BY-SA

Doing things better

With all this open data at their fingertips it hasn’t taken long for entrepreneurs to develop web and mobile apps taking advantage of it. For example, Zoopla uses UK Land Registry data already in the public domain to find out about potential property buyers and their preferred locations. Transport data from TfL is at the core of an interactive, detailed London transport map built by TubeMap. And company registration details are used by OpenCorporates to provide insight into directors’ interests worldwide.

More analytical uses include SpendNetwork which, examining the UK’s tendering process, found it 45% slower than the European average resulting in small and medium businesses losing out by £734m. The OpenSpending project, funded by Open Knowledge Foundation, analysed spending data to show how a citizen’s taxes are spent in different government departments. Findings such as these feed back and alter – and improve – policy.

Format matters

Perhaps for understandable reasons, many publishers have focused more on making data available, and less on ensuring it is made available in useful formats. Many of the uses to which data has been put – such as the websites and apps mentioned above – would not have been possible without significant investment in curating and analysing the data into meaningful digital forms.

Simply sticking a spreadsheet on the website – still most governments’ idea of implementing open data – is not enough to realise its true potential benefit. Many key data assets have yet to be released into the public domain, or are locked behind corporate walls. Even addresses and postcodes are have yet to be fully opened up. A project to do so as launched recently, OpenAddresses, but is in very early development. No matter how flattering recent rankings might be for the UK government, when something as basic as postcodes is still locked away there is still a lot of work to be done.

The way ahead

With ownership of the data that is key to a nation’s information infrastructure comes great responsibility: investing in technology and skills, but also devising strategies for maintaining, curating and releasing data. This also means a more careful consideration of the different ways in which data could be used, encouraging not just publication but also responsible handling. This way the excellent ratings the UK achieves can be translated into real benefits.

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