Too much public Government data unreadable, say MPs

MPs have slammed the government today for dumping large amounts of unworkable data into the public domain, which is intended to support its transparency drive.

The government has already made more than 9,000 datasets available via data.gov.uk and is planning to launch a £10m Open Data Institute, headed up by inventor of the internet Tim Berners-Lee, to help businesses maximise the commercial value of open data.

In a report entitled ‘Implementing the Transparency Agenda’, the Public Accounts Committee recognises that although the case for open data is strong, more needs to be done to realise its full benefits.

Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MP said: “It is simply not good enough to dump large quantities of raw data into the public domain. It must be accessible, relevant and easy for us all to understand. Otherwise the public cannot use it to make comparisons and exercise choice, which is the key objective of the transparency drive.”

“At the moment too much data is poorly presented and difficult to interpret. In some sectors, such as adult social care, there are big gaps in the information provided so users cannot use it to make informed choices.”

Hodge also said that the transparency agenda isn’t being helped by the government allowing some providers of public services to not share information. For example, academies are not required to provide data on spending per pupil, which consequently limits value for money comparisons between different types of school.

An area of “particular concern” for the Committee, is that private providers can hide behind ‘commercial confidentiality’ to block the disclosure of relevant information.

The government should also aim to establish the full implications of carrying out its open data drive, according to the report.

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Hodge said: “Data is being issued by government and other public bodies without any clear idea of costs, benefits and risks of doing so. The government should develop a comprehensive analysis of what it actually costs to release data, and of the real benefits and risks.”

The release of data by government departments and authorities has also created a number of new challenges that need to be met. For example, government bodies need to ensure that there is sufficient disclosure of information by private firms delivering government contracts, protecting personal privacy and also making sure the benefits of data disclosure can be realised by those without internet access.

Ex-government CIO Bill McCluggage, who has since taken up a position as an advisory technology consultant with EMC, agreed with the Committee, but said that open data could drive growth in the UK.

He said: “I endorse the points that the government has made great progress in terms of publishing open data. However, we believe that there is further opportunity to exploit the transparency policy to drive greater benefit.”

“While access to relevant data can be fraught with issues, success is in sight and with the right approach to the development of new applications, and a focus on opportunities for monetisation, open data could help power growth in the economy.”

He added: “Data analytics needs to be applied in the right way, through the right eyes and ears to help the Government make sense of the situation, so that when data is released it is in an easy and digestible form.”

Earlier this year minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude, launched a whitepaper that detailed the government’s plans to release data into the public domain for analysis and re-use. However, he also said that the time that “there is nothing easy about transparency” and that the “formative years of open government will be tricky”.