Open Data Bonanza

The Open Government Partnership events capped an astonishing week for open data, with so many announcements that I suspect it will take weeks to digest them all. I wanted to highlight a few that are particularly important within the UK.

Corporate Information

Thursday saw the release of the UK's National Action Plan. This includes, as announced by David Cameron, a commitment to publicly publish a register of beneficial ownership, ie information about who owns which companies. There is still some detail to be worked out about this commitment. As Chris Taggart has argued, this information must be published not just publicly but as open data if it is to achieve its potential impact. The same arguments that I made around the publication of the Lobbyist Register apply to a register of beneficial ownership.

Friday saw the release by Companies House of accounts data as open data. This is another amazingly rich source of information about how companies are working. This is important for corporate transparency, but it will be interesting to see how other organisations might analyse this data, as it provides a picture of the state of the UK economy at a very granular level.

What we are gradually seeing with corporate information is an accretion of datasets that can be linked together, through the company registration number, to provide greater insight into how individual companies and the economy as a whole are working. This includes:

In the UK, we are reaching a critical mass of open data about corporate activity. If large financial institutions aren't making use of it, they are missing a trick.

UK National Action Plan

Open data is a cornerstone of the UK's Open Government Partnership National Action Plan for the next two years. There are five commitments explicitly within the "Open Data" section, but many others focus on publishing more and better open data, including through legislation.gov.uk and OpenDataCommunities.

As Jonathan Grey from OKFN points out, open government is about accountability and social justice. Open data can help to achieve that accountability, but it is also helpful for supporting economic growth and improving public services. Embedding broader open data commitments within the Open Government Partnership plan is not a perfect fit, but expedient.

The Commitment 3 focuses on local authority data:

The UK government will issue a revised Local Authorities Data Transparency Code requiring local authorities to publish key information and data. This will place more power into citizens’ hands and make it easier for local people to contribute to the local decision making process and help shape public services.

Particularly welcome here is the commitment to "bring into force regulations making it a legal requirement for local authorities to publish data in accordance with the Code", this winter. At ODI, we have argued for some time that sustainable open data publication is crucial for businesses, large and small, who want to build products and services over open data. Legislation is a powerful way in which government can guarantee that supply.

It remains to be seen exactly which datasets will be included within the new Code of Practice; the consultation on Improving local government transparency ran almost a year ago and a response is promised this month.

National Information Infrastructure

A report on the ongoing development of the UK's National Information Infrastructure (NII) was also published last week. It's now possible to filter the 14,000+ datasets listed on data.gov.uk down to the 280 which are classified as NII. Of these, over a quarter aren't published, many because they include personal data (and thus couldn't be released without anonymisation) or are subject to IP restrictions. But where the data can be published, the NII acts as a useful way of focusing attention on important datasets.

At ODI we are particularly pleased to see the action:

Action: Departments should put all their datasets currently available under an Open Government Licence through the ODI’s open data certification process, giving priority to the datasets included in the NII, and make the outcome available through data.gov.uk, by December 2014.

Our ideal is for NII datasets to be published at the Expert level of the Open Data Certificates, but our experience is that even answering the questions posed by the Open Data Certificates helps publishers to identify quick and easy ways in which they can improve their open data publication. We have already implemented functionality that automatically completes much of the questionnaire based on metadata published on data.gov.uk, and look forward to data.gov.uk displaying the level of certification for those datasets that have gone through the process.

Open Data Index and Barometer

The final set of announcements from last week that I want to draw attention to here are the announcement of the Open Knowledge Foundation's Open Data Index 2013 and the Open Data Barometer 2013 which was developed by the Web Foundation in collaboration with us here at ODI. (Dave Tarrant has done a great interactive visualisation if you want to explore the Barometer results.)

These are both useful ways of measuring how well countries are doing at opening up data, with slightly different emphases. The Open Data Index focuses on the availability of particular important datasets. The Open Data Barometer assesses readiness (such as policy context), implementation and impacts, offering a measure of how far the publication of open data is affecting business and society as a whole.

The UK rightly tops both of the measures, thanks to all the advocates and practitioners of open data both within and outside government. But it is still possible to lead the world in these measures and have a long way to go. As the Barometer highlights, the UK has done well at providing an environment friendly to open data, and at releasing some important data sets, but it is yet to realise the full benefits, particularly in:

  • increasing government efficiency and effectiveness
  • increasing environmental sustainability
  • increasing the inclusion of marginalised groups in policy making and accessing public services

It's my hope that we can work on creating impact in these areas at ODI over the next year.