Skip to main content

Is the UK losing its lead in the open data race?

By Aingaran Pillai - 29th January 2016

This article first appeared on http://www.information-age.com

Open Public Data Will Hail A New Form Of Society And We Must Just Hope, Even With An App, That The UK Government Doesn’t Miss The Bus

Innovation is changing society. From how we order our taxis to how we interact with one another, consumers are constantly seeking the next application that’ll make life that little bit easier.  

And at the core of such innovation is the open data movement, in which governments and private enterprises publish information openly to the public. 

The importance of open data is such that Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the web and Linked Data initiator, outlined a five star deployment guide that ranks open data from a one star (where information is made available on the internet under an open license) to five stars (where data is highly accessible, machine readable and linked to other data to provide context).

The influence of this data varies hugely depending on its ranking, but five star data has the potential to unlock a new generation of services.

The UK government pioneered open data and it has long been at the forefront of the movement in relation to other nations. The opening up of Transport for London (TfL) data, which unleashed a wave of apps that simplified London transport and gifted commuters valuable knowledge, set a precedent globally.

But, this lead is now in jeopardy as the UK government recently relinquished the Postal Address File to a private company through the privatisation of the Royal Mail.

In almost a total U-turn, the government abandoned the notion of democratic data by granting a company the power to charge for, or withhold information. If this continues, other countries that have realised the vast potential of open data will no doubt overtake the UK.

The Importance Of Open Data

One only has to look at the government’s dedicated data website to find out how much influence accessible data truly has. The website is home to almost 400 apps, all of which are fuelled by information provided to them by government initiatives.

From weather reports for astronomers to apps that find you the most scenic walking routes, actionable data has encouraged innovations that are beneficial to everybody. And, aside from what some may consider trivial applications, open data has real and tangible benefits.

For example, the report ‘Open Data: Six Stories About Impact in the UK’, which was commissioned by Omidyar Network, found that the government’s decision to provide open TfL data led to the creation of 362 apps that employed thousands of staff.

And, even more significantly, the users of these apps saved the equivalent of £15-58 million of value of time in 2012 alone – stats that show that open data provides so much more than just pretty walks.

Using open data the UK government could benefit in two ways. Firstly, the innovative services borne from actionable data could save the government millions in expenditure. And secondly, this data would give the government an opportunity to both learn from and replicate quality services.

Although unorthodox, the government should consider itself an innovation platform above all else. Using Apple as an example, the government could create its own version of the app store.

By supplying high-quality accessible data, and providing an opportunity for external companies to contribute, the government could benefit greatly in much the same fashion that Apple does.

Apple provides the impetus and in return is able to re-purpose the best innovations and build them into its own platform – and the government should do exactly the same.

Barriers To Open Data

Despite setbacks, elements of progress have been made. In 2014 the NHS looked to utilise open data and ran a yearlong competition – with a prize of £30,000 – which challenged innovators to “publish or present data on obesity in a new, exciting and useful way”.  

This links back to government as an innovation platform, and reveals how an area such as healthcare can encourage innovation to improve its own services.

However, such examples are few and far between. The government’s hands are often tied by data privacy laws. The Department of Health fell victim to this when their attempts to publish anonymised patient data was scrapped in the face of opposition.

But, most importantly, the open data movement is stalling due to a lack of education and knowledge. Worryingly, the process of releasing data has become a checkbox exercise.

For example, a government employee may be instructed to make a set of data public. So, the employee publishes the data on the internet as a PDF document. Job done, right? Wrong, a PDF constitutes as one star data and is virtually useless.

The government must educate its staff in order to avoid this scenario. What one individual may consider useless information could be a gold mine to another.

If we are to continue the process of innovation and improvement, those tasked with making data available must do so to the highest standard – so that entrepreneurs can put it to use.

If we take transport as a benchmark, one can only imagine society if all areas and departments were disrupted. But, this can only happen if the UK government re-evaluates how it publishes data and ends lazy solutions.

Education is a small step towards improving the process but the government must eventually take the leap and acknowledge that there should be no such thing as government-owned data. 

About the author: Aingaran Pillai
Aingaran Pillai is the Founder and CEO of Zaizi. Having worked on an Alfresco project in Government back in 2006, he liked the technology so much he started Zaizi to work on many more Alfresco implementations. Since then he has built Zaizi to be a leader in providing end-to-end digital solutions, specialising in business automation, open source technologies and cloud platforms. He provides thought leadership in the field of digital transformation in both the Public and Private Sector.