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Data in Whitehall: Which UK departments are the least and most open?

Charlotte Jee | Aug. 27, 2015
Few are brave or foolish enough to publicly disagree with the idea that public bodies should publish as much of the data they hold as possible.

Few are brave or foolish enough to publicly disagree with the idea that public bodies should publish as much of the data they hold as possible.

After all, we need information - whether it be on projects, salaries, decisions or spending - to hold Whitehall to account and track how public money is spent on our behalf. And a growing number of startups that hope to build businesses on the back of open data rely on it for their livelihood.

"Open data increases the transparency and accountability of the Government. It also benefits individuals and businesses by allowing them to analyse huge tranches of information to uncover useful trends," says Mike Weston, CEO of data science consultancy Profusion.

So it's heartening to hear how much of it is in the public domain now, at least compared to five years ago when the UK government first officially started promoting open data: the idea public data should be freely available to all.

All Whitehall departments produced open data strategies in June 2012. The amounts and types of data the different organisations committed to release varied widely, but a few have led the way.

The Good

"The government has been strong in opening up data in areas such as publicly funded research and environmental measurements," according to data analytics company Tessella's analytics lead, Nick Clarke.

Campaigners and entrepreneurs say the defence, environment, energy, transport and health departments are pioneers within Whitehall.

"I have nothing but pleasant things to say about Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA)," says Ian Makgill, who set up open data startup Spend Network.

"In central government it can be very varied. For example the kind of people you'd expect to be least helpful like the Ministry of Defence and in fact incredibly efficient and get it. Considering the size of the department they provide information remarkably quickly," he adds.

"The transport and health [departments] have very good open data programmes," says open data campaigner Owen Boswarva.

"It's pertinent that they started early and developed their own policies rather than being led by Cabinet Office. Other than ONS, those departments have the most embedded open data cultures in the public sector," he adds.

Just last week Defra promised to publish 8,000 datasets in the next year, including its high-resolution maps covering 72 percent of England.

Soon-to-depart government digital director Mike Bracken welcomed the move as a sign Defra understands 'its future depends on being a more data-driven organisation'

"This is more than simply opening up some spreadsheets. It's about deep-rooted culture change so that it's open by default," he said in a blog post.


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