Monday, 23 August 2010

Opening up government data

The concept behind open data is that information should be in the public domain, and it should be easily accessible and transparent. The drive to open up data was first started by the Labour government, with the baton now in the hands of the coalition government. This would give the British public a clear picture of what information is stored at both central and local government levels, and promises to give transparency of its services to the tax payers, who fund these services. Certain questions remain though in how we achieve this utopian vision of opening up data to the public, such as what are the issues and benefits to achieving it.

It all started back in December 2009 when the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced plans to open up UK government data, including public services performance data, transport data and geospatial data. Who could be better placed to head up this initiative than Sir Tim Berners Lee. Together with Professor Nigel Shadbolt they produced a beta version of the web site. As of January 2010 there are now over 3,500 government data sets.

Under Prime Minister David Cameron’s “Big Society” initiative, a clear message has been made that there will be continued support for opening up government data to encourage citizens and communities to use this data to empower themselves. The new Public Sector Transparency Board has appointed both Sir Tim Berners Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt as board members. It has recently set out its draft principles including that public data will be published in reusable, machine readable form using open standards, and following recommendations from the World Wide Web Consortium.

Thanks to Sir Tim Berners Lee we’re now aware of the Semantic Web, and more recently the need for Linked Data.

“I have a dream for the Web [in which computers] become capable of analysing all the data on the Web – the content, links and transactions between people and computers. A ‘semantic web’, which should make this possible, has yet to emerge, but when it does, the day-to-day mechanisms of trade, bureaucracy, and our daily lives will be handled by machines talking to machines. The ‘intelligent agents’ that people have touted will finally materialise”.

To create these intelligent agents though, we need intelligent data, and with that, Linked Data has emerged.

In January 2010 Sir Tim Berners Lee told BBC News:

“It’s such an untapped resource….government data is something we have already spent the money on…..and when it is sitting there on a disk in somebody’s office it is wasted”.

So over two decades after the Web came into being, we may just be in a position to harness it in a way that can truly benefit everyone. The question is how do we achieve this utopian vision?

There have been two key phases to this process. The first was to get the data online in whatever format was available. So data that was held in Word, PDF and HTML formats needed to be converted into linked, machine readable formats.

The second phase is where we now currently find ourselves, and requires the adoption of a series of standards when publishing data to the Web using recommended linked data formats such as Resource Description Framework (RDF).

It we want true transparency then we need the data to be structured in such a way as to be open and interoperable. The Stationery Office (TSO) is working with organisations such as the Cabinet Office and The National Archives to bring this together, and to establish the principles for publishing government linked data.

If all this goes as planned, then the government will have generated something for the greater good of society. Something that will help make our lives better informed and to help us become more responsible citizens. We should all expect open data, and now we are getting nearer having the right to demand it. If the current plans go ahead without problems, we can also deliver it!


  1. You didn't mention that Nigel Shadbolt has financial interests in Garlik Limited, a company that TSO has partnered with to offer hosted linked data solutions to the public sector[1].

    In the name of transparency, the Cabinet Office should disclose[2] that Public Sector Transparency Board member Nigel Shadbolt has financial interests in Garlik. Nigel Shadbolt is a founding director and employee of Garlik Limited [3][4][5].


  2. I wasn't aware that Nigel Shadbolt had financial interests in the company Garlik that you mention, so thanks for pointing that out to me.