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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.

"They're treating data as a public asset, which is exactly the right thing to do. If other departments are wondering what to do with their own piles of data, I have four simple words of advice: get it out there," Bracken added.

Makgill suggests the situation would be vastly improved if departments 'took their own medicine'.

"The problem with open data on spending is it's not actually used by government, it's just put out there. If these departments were relying on that data week in week out, they would publish it every month without fail, and it would be usable," he says.

The Bad

Despite this handful of best practitioners, the open data picture across Whitehall is not entirely rosy.

"We regularly have to submit Freedom of Information requests to get stuff that should be published, like spending or contract data, which is supposed to be open," says Makgill.

"Most departments are middling: there's some good and some bad practice. The general rule is departments see the virtue in open data when they can leverage it to support another policy or initiative, but lack a systematic approach," Boswarva says.

Another issue is the format of the data that gets released: it is not always the usable, clean, machine-readable data experts say you need to link datasets and analyse them.

"The raw data could just about be understood by a layman but to combine different datasets you require a high level of expertise," says Weston.

"For the data to be truly accessible and for the Government to be fully accountable this information needs to be presented in such a way that it is easier to handle and understand," he says.

"[Limitations on open data] include some data not being published, some not being recorded, some being suppressed or redacted, and some being published without useful categorisations," a report by Whitehall thinktank Institute for Government warned last year.

"This makes it difficult to analyse definitively the extent and effectiveness of government contracting," it concluded.

Several individuals told ComputerworldUK good performance on open data is - perhaps unsurprisingly - often linked to the enthusiasm of one or two senior people or teams within the department.

"If you could clone a few key teams around the civil service you could make a real difference with relatively little investment," Open Data Institute cofounder Sir Nigel Shadbolt says.

However "I rarely see much evidence of a coherent cross-government open data policy," Boswarva adds.

He says the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Ministry of Justice both have "pretty awful" records when it comes to data release.

DCLG has cut the amount of data it collects from local government as is refusing to release a number of important datasets, such as Energy Performance Certificates, he says.

 

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