Open Government & Open Data

Dafydd Vaughan on 15 December 2009

It has been exactly nine months since I started my job at Consumer Focus Labs. In this time, we’ve published our Recalled Products website, some data on the Digital Switchover in Wales, been contributing to a blog following our attempts to get data out of Tesco and are producing our new StayPrivate.org website.

Sometimes I come away from the office and struggle to see what we have actually achieved. When you are stuck into day to day work, it is quite easy to lose sight of the bigger picture.

This isn’t helped by the fact that part of our team’s aim does not have a tangible outcome. We spend a sizable portion of our energy on promoting our open principles within the organisation and converting people to our way of thinking. It isn’t an easy task, as I’m sure other people in this field will confirm but I’m starting to feel like we are making some headway.

The first report (of which I hope there will be many) has just gone online, in a format allowing the public to comment on each part of the document. The Consumer Focus website is now powered using the open source WordPress Content Management System (joining the likes of bis.gov.uk and number10.gov.uk). Other developments are also in the pipeline for the next few months and all have stemmed from us ‘spreading the gospel’.

This sort of work is going on across Government on many different levels, but recently there seems to have been a bit of a breakthrough. There is lots of things happening at the moment which you might find interesting. I’m going to briefly run through them.

Data.gov.uk

This is the UK version of the USA’s Data.gov and has been operating in a restricted beta for a few months. Government departments have been posting raw datasets for developers to use for free in their open projects. From sometime in January, the site will go live with over 1100 datasets from central government.

Ordnance Survey, NHS Data, Office of National Statistics Data

Work is underway to open up more datasets and make them freely available. These include health data from NHS Choices, mapping data from Ordnance Survey (OS) and statistics from the Office of National Statistics. Consultations are planned for early in the new year with aims to open them up by April 2010. There also seems to be some movement on publishing data of how the money allocated in the 2008 Pre-Budget report has been spent (possibly by spring, with further data released in the summer).

More information about the data releases can be found in the Government’s recent strategy ‘Putting the Frontline First: Smarter Government‘ and on the Government’s Digital Engagement blog.

Crime Maps

The various Police forces around the UK have released crime statistics using their new mapping service. I’ve had a bit of a play around and it looks pretty good. You can see lots of information about your local area and download the data in CSV format.

More information about the Crime Maps can be found on the Directgov website.

Post Code Data

A few months ago I wrote about the issue of post codes after ErnestMarples.com was forced to shut down by the Royal Mail. Since then, a campaign has been ongoing to set the post code free. Well, it looks like someone might have listened. As part of the opening up of OS data above, a consultation will be taking place shortly on the opening up of post code datasets, which could see the data released by April 2010.

More information about the release of post code data can be found on the Ernest Marples blog.

Digital Economy Bill

The Digital Economy Bill has recently been introduced to Parliament and is due to go to committee stage shortly. This bill contains a large chunk of the actions and recommendations from the Digital Britain Report earlier in the year (with a number of strange and scary additions). There is a lot of talk about this at the moment and the effect it will have on the digital life and innovation in the UK. You can follow the progress of the bill on the Parliament.UK website, or on twitter using the #debill hashtag. If you want more information on the bill and how it might affect us, there are a large number of blogs and websites dedicated to the issue.

Directgov

This brings me to one of the last bits for this entry, and I make no apologies for the shameless self-promotion here.

Direct.gov.uk is the UK Government’s official website for the general public. It aims to collect all the public facing information into one place and make it easy to find. Unfortunately, its usefulness and ability to achieve this aims has been called into question. Personally, I’ve never liked the website and can never find information I want from the site (in fact, I tried several times to find information relating to bits in this post but gave up).

Consumer Focus has recently published a report on the website that analyses how well it delivers on its promise. As I alluded to earlier, this report is available online in fully commentable format. We are encouraging everyone and anyone to send us their thoughts on Directgov, what the problems are and what can be improved. Similarly, if you think it is doing something right, we want to know that too. You can find out more about the report at http://directgov.consumerfocuslabs.org.

I believe there will be a series of workshops planned for early in the new year to identify ways of engaging people in digital public service development. You can sign up on the site to be kept informed (and I’ll no doubt be publishing the information here as well).

Looking back at everything that has been achieved and everything that has happened in the last nine months, I’m actually quite excited at what we can do by this time next year (election permitting of course!). I have my fingers crossed 2010 will continue making leaps towards open government.

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