Statistics and Open Data: Harvesting unused knowledge, empowering citizens and improving public services - Public Administration Committee Contents


Open data plays an increasingly important role in Government and society. It is data that is accessible to all, free of restrictions on use or redistribution and which is digital and machine-readable so that it can be combined with other data. Today there are unparalleled opportunities to harvest unused knowledge that otherwise goes to waste, which can be used to empower citizens, to improve public services, and to benefit the economy and society as a whole. Deloitte assessed "the value of public sector information to consumers, businesses and the public sector in 2011/12 [as] approximately £1.8 billion (2011 prices)." Deloitte also estimated the "social value" of public sector information "on the basis of conservative assumptions" to be "in excess of £5 billion for 2011/12 (2011 prices)."

Ministers support open data. We welcome the clear lead on open data that has come from successive Governments. However its concept of open data is poorly defined and there are no accepted measures of what is published. Simply putting data "out there" is not enough to keep Government accountable.

The Government needs to recognise that the public has the inherent 'right to data', but there is confusion about this concept. The Government should clarify its policy and bring forward the necessary legislation, without delay.

The 'right to privacy' must also be recognised. The recent controversy over '' demonstrates the danger that undue or exaggerated concerns about privacy will unduly undermine the case for open data.

There should be a presumption that restrictions on government data releases should be abolished.

Some government data sets are of huge direct value to the economy. The Postcode Address File (PAF) was included in the sale to boost the Royal Mail share price at flotation. This takes an immediate but narrow view of the value of such datasets. PAF should have been retained as a public data set, as a national asset. The sale of the PAF with the Royal Mail was a mistake. Public access to public sector data must never be sold or given away again.

The UK Government was an early mover on government open data, but other Governments, watching the UK with interest, are catching up fast. If the Government does not take the opportunities offered, there is a risk in the UK that businesses with growth potential will be deterred by fees for data, and by legal and administrative barriers, while other countries are developing their data industrial base and stealing a lead over the UK.

The Cabinet Office should be much more active in ensuring Departments maximise the social and economic potential of open data, not least in increasing their own efficiency and effectiveness.

Many civil and public servants lack the skills to interpret data properly and some civil servants do not seem to share the Government's desire for openness. Government should 'publish early even if imperfect', as well as being committed to a 'high quality core'.

There is much to be gained from open data, but the Government's direction of travel is not clear. There has been a lack of coordination on open data at Ministerial and official level, though this is improving.

To overcome departmental apathy and resistance, open data needs to be treated as a major government programme in its own right, which will only bring substantial benefits if it is subject to active leadership and management.

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Prepared 17 March 2014