BRIEF

Open Data in the United Kingdom

October 20, 2015

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Photo: Arne Hoel / World Bank


Background

The term “open data” refers to non-proprietary and machine-readable data that anyone is free to use, reuse, manipulate, and disseminate without legal or technical restrictions. The first open government data policy was launched in Washington, D.C. in 2008, when the Chief Technology Officer of the District of Columbia released on the Internet more than 400 datasets on the District’s budget, contracts, crime statistics, and more. Developers were encouraged to manipulate, repurpose, and integrate these datasets, creating new applications free for all to use. When President Barack Obama entered office in 2009, he endorsed a similar initiative at the federal level, requiring federal agencies and departments to release open datasets to a designated website, Data.gov. The United Kingdom followed with a similar policy, inaugurating Data.gov.uk (https://www.data.gov.uk/), an online repository of open government data, which consists of datasets that cover finance, health, transportation, education, environment, and other issues.

Policy intervention

The open data vision of the UK government has been highly ambitious. It described the benefits of open data as follows: “Open Data enables accountability; it improves outcomes and productivity in key services through informed comparison; it transforms social relationships – empowering individuals and communities; and it drives dynamic economic growth.” (HM Government 2011).

Data.gov.uk was launched in September 2009 in a beta version, allowing developers to test it and provide feedback. When the project was officially launched in January 2010 it contained 2,500 data sets, and by December 2011 over 7,865 datasets were indexed on the website. In an open letter released in May 2010, Prime Minister Brown committed to release to the internet on a monthly basis all governmental spending items over £25,000, all governmental contracts and tenders over £10,000, and information on the salaries of senior civil servants.

In July 2011, the Prime Minister made some additional public commitments to include plain English descriptions of the scope and purpose of governmental spending and information on procurement cards. The UK government has also made a series of commitments about service-specific data releases in areas including crime and justice, international development, health, education and transport.

The Government has also made it a priority to release the data under a non-restrictive license that would allow to third-parties to freely use and reuse the released data. In September 2010, the UK Government launched the new “Open Government License,” that permits free, permanent, non-exclusive access to material made available under the license. Analysis of data sets catalogued within www.data.gov.uk shows that 86 per cent are available under the Open Government License (NAO 2012).

Objectives

The major objective of the UK open data policy is to release to the internet governmental datasets under an open license. The working assumption is that
private developers and programmers will access the data and develop
applications that analyze and visualize the datasets that they are interested
in. The major objectives of the open data policy are the following:

  • Accountability: “The expectation is that modern, democratic government shares information with the society it governs to demonstrate freedom from corruption and appropriate use of public funds” (HM Government 2011); 
  • Choice: “For the public sector, Transparency and Open Data are about helping people find the right doctor for their needs, or
    the best teacher for their child, or helping a victim of crime track whether justice is done. … It is about giving people the data on local authority spending and delivery that they need to challenge the value of a service provided.”
  • Productivity: “Public sector bodies are not easily able to benchmark their costs and the quality of their services against their
    peers and may have falsely high—or low—understandings of their performance” (HM Government 2011). Open data is supposed to facilitate such benchmarking.
  • Economic growth: “Open Data across government and public services would allow a market in comparative analytics, information presentation and service improvement to flourish (HM Government 2011).

Outcomes and effects

Since its public launch in January 2010 and till April 2012, more than 1.75 million visits were registered on the Data.gov.uk website (NAO 2012). However, a report by the National Audit Office indicates that “from May to November 2011, 82 per cent of all users left www.data.gov.uk having only accessed either the home page or the data page. This indicates that they did not find the information they were seeking, although this does not reflect other potential access points for the data, for example linked third party websites or applications” (NOA 2012, p. 17). Given the objectives of the open data policy, this finding seems to be alarming—it means that while citizens are aware of the website and capable of accessing it, they do not find interest in the budgetary that is released to the website.

According to the National Audit Office report, “None of the departments reported significant spontaneous public demand for the standard dataset releases. For example, page views for transparency data on the Ministry of Justice website represented just 0.02 per cent of the overall site traffic from April to September 2011. Service-specific releases have attracted greater interest. The Department for Education’s school website tool has received on average 45,000 views per month in the first two months since its release in September 2011. By comparison, the transparency page on the Department’s website, which includes links to its standard data sets, received on average 600 views per month in the period from April 2011 to October 2011.” (NOA 2012). While these figures do not include the usage of third party applications or websites designed on the basis of Data.gov.uk, the overall picture suggests that individual citizens (and maybe even CSOs) have not considerably engaged with the released data. The following examples can be illuminating in this respect.

  • Police crime map (http://data.gov.uk/apps/uk-crime-stats). In June 2010, the government announced that it would publish crime data at street level to allow the public to better hold the police to account. The police crime map website was accordingly launched on in January 2011. The crime map provides information on the profiles of local neighborhood police teams, comparative data about crime levels in different neighborhoods and cities, which is updated on a monthly level, and details of budgetary allocations to different police teams. To protect privacy, street-level crime maps aggregate crime data and map it to an anonymous point, typically the geographical center of a street. The objective of the map was to provide information that would increase the accountability of local police teams to the public. According to NOA, there was a “high level of demand from the public with an estimated 47 million visits between February and December 2011.”
  • Choosing schools (http://www.ukschoolfinder.com/). The Data.gov.uk website offers a tool that helps parents choose among schools. It contains descriptive information about schools, and comparative information on school performance and finance. To support parental choice, the tool offers school performance tables provide in one place previously diffuse data. According to NOA, the tool attracted considerable public attention: the Department of Education “has reported that interaction with the website tool increased by 84 per cent in the last year, with 2.43 million views from September to November 2011, compared with 1.3 million views for the corresponding information in the same period of 2010.”
  • Local government accountability. The UK open data policy also targeted local government data, in order to allow local communities and individuals to “hold local public service bodies to account for their use of resources” (NOA 2012). However, this information was more difficult to release and raise considerable public attention. According to NOA (2012), “the local government sector is leading a new approach to defining key indicators. It is not currently clear whether this approach will yield sufficient comparable performance information to support meaningful public accountability.”
  • Economic value. The NOA report notes that “Studies that have been carried out suggest a strong strategic economic case for enabling greater access to public sector information. However, the scale of the various estimates varies widely, owing to differences in approaches to benefits estimation and the assumptions of the economic models used.” Currently the value of open data policies is hard to measure and it is not clear to which assessments are accurate. 

Discussion

  • Governmental leadership. One of the main drivers of effectiveness of the UK open data policy is the commitment of high-level policymakers to the platform. In fact, Prime Minister Brown made the open data policy his personal priority—“the Cabinet Office plays the lead role in promoting transparency across government. It is responsible for coordinating and monitoring implementation, secretariat support to a Public Sector Transparency Board, bringing together officials to embed transparency across government, and providing guidance on some of the releases required of all government departments.” (NOA 2012).
  • Citizen and CSO participation. There is currently no available literature on the ways CSOs use the data provided as part of UK’s open data policy. There has also been no evidence of high-level reliance on this data as part of corruption investigations or public debates about budget allocations. It seems that citizens are more likely to use the data provided on Data.gov.uk for service-related purposes, rather than access it in order to closely follow budgetary allocations are assess the performance of
    their policymakers.

Secondary sources

  • National Audit Office (2012).“Cross-government Review: Implementing Transparency,” Report by the Comptroller General and Auditor General, April 2012.