Debating the possibilities for 'open data' in the UK

SAS UK has been working closely with the think tank Demos, a leading voice of authority on public policy and politics, undertaking a project on the topic of ‘open data’ and how its use can help to assign political accountability, give responsibility to citizens and even save lives.

In July 2011, I took part in an event held by Demos entitled ‘Where next for Open Data?’ alongside Tim Kelsey, the government’s Director of Transparency. According to Kelsey, data is set to transform public service, something I wholeheartedly support, however I’d urge caution in how we go about it.

Demos is about to publish its views on the importance of open data for the UK government to effectively engage with its citizens. Authored by Charles Leadbeater, a leading authority on innovation and creativity, the think-piece ‘When Big Data Meets The Civic Long Tail’ sets out how no government can afford to be isolated from the society it serves – a point that has been reflected and echoed in recent announcements by the UK government around open data.

David Cameron recently stated, “We recognise that transparency and open data can be a powerful tool to help reform public services, foster innovation and empower citizens.” Proving its dedication to setting out an ambitious world-beating open data agenda, the Government committed in July to publish key data on the National Health Service, schools, criminal courts and transport. The new data will reveal detailed medical, education, judicial and transportation information that will show performance levels in these vital services and drive delivery of modern, personalised and sustainable public services. All of the new datasets will be published in open, standardised formats, and free for commercial re-use under the Open Government Licence by third parties.

It’s a commendable and exciting plan, which is certainly a step in the right direction for the government. I say this as a business leader with an interest in deriving value from data, but also as a private citizen. The UK government cannot afford to be isolated in the modern networked world. We have the opportunity to take the lead in how data is being used, and now is the right time to move. Now, more so than ever, governments can’t afford to be disconnected with their public. Expectations in a society over run by data and the rise of participation in social media highlights this. We expect full transparency, on demand, at a level of granularity unthinkable just years ago. And when we don’t get the information we want, when we want it, we suspect anything from foul play to plain incompetence. So transparency is an important step for government, and for society.

Charles Leadbeater states that: “Social media and the web are creating a myriad of spaces in which people can voice their views, connect to others, learn to see the world from new vantage points and gather information on their own terms. Social media is creating the conditions for the emergence of a civic long tail, a mass of loosely connected, small scale conversations, campaigns and interest groups, which might occasionally coalesce to create a mass movement.”

The emergence of the civic long tail is something that the government will need to work with. The recent announcements clearly show that there are significant steps being taken by the UK government to reach out to citizens through the UK civic long tail to not only inform them, but create open dialogue where they can reflect their views and preferences.

Opening up the data to allow private companies, civic entrepreneurs and campaigners will help. However, we lack an effective innovation strategy for the public sector to make the most of open “big data” and social media.

In my next blog post I will set out my views around an effective innovation strategy for the public sector to make the most of open “big data” and social media...

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