Well, it seems to be Open Data week here on Computerworld UK. After my report on the Open Knowledge Conference in Berlin, one of whose principal themes was open data, and my post about proposals for a data.gov.eu portal, this morning we have the following major announcement by the UK Prime Minister:
In May 2010, I set out the Government's specific commitments on transparency in a letter to Cabinet colleagues. Over the past 12 months, we have successfully fulfilled these commitments, and demonstrated global leadership in government transparency and open data.
I am writing to you today to celebrate our achievements over that period and set out new commitments for the next 12 months. These commitments represent the most ambitious open data agenda of any government in the world, and demonstrate our determination to make the public sector more transparent and accountable.
If our transparency focus over the past 12 months has been to open up core central government data in areas such as spending, our priority over the next year will be to release new data on the performance of public services. This revolution in government transparency will make it easier than ever before for the public to make informed choices between providers and hold government to account for the performance of key public services.
As I indicated previously, I think David Cameron's characterisation of the UK government's moves as "the most ambitious open data agenda of any government in the world" is probably fair. And that's what makes today's announcements even more important: they represent an intent to continue this open data revolution – for it is truly nothing less – rather than to rein it in. At a time when the US, for example, has clearly scaled back its commitment on the open government front, that's a hugely important signal not just for the UK, but for other countries already active in this area, or contemplating it.
What's also noteworthy about today's plans is that they place open data close to the heart of several major government departments: health, education, criminal justice and transport. Here are just a few of the really important data sets that are being promised:
Data on comparative clinical outcomes of GP practices in England to be published by December 2011, following the lead of the NHS in London which has agreed a set of 22 indicators with local GPs
Prescribing data by GP practice to be published by December 2011, as per the Growth Review
Complaints data by NHS hospital so that patients can see what issues have affected others and take better decisions about which hospital suits them. This commitment will be met by October 2011
Clinical audit data, detailing the performance of publicly funded clinical teams in treating key healthcare conditions, will be published from April 2012. This service will be piloted in December 2011 using data from the latest National Lung Cancer Audit, commissioned by the Healthcare Quality Improvement Partnership (HQIP) as part of the National Clinical Audit and Patient Outcomes Programme (NCAPOP)
Data enabling parents to see how effective their school is at teaching high, average and low attaining pupils across a range of subjects, to be published from January 2012
Opening up access to anonymised data from the National Pupil Database to help parents and pupils to monitor the performance of their schools in depth, from June 2012. This will enable better comparisons of school performance and we will look to strengthen datasets in due course
Bringing together for the first time school spending data, school performance data, pupil cohort data and Ofsted judgements, from January 2012, in a parent-friendly portal, searchable by postcode
Sentencing data by court will be published by November 2011, enabling the public to see exactly what sentences are being handed down in their local courts, and compare different courts on a wide range of measures. The data, anonymised, will include the age, gender and ethnicity of those sentenced, the sentence given, and the time taken at each stage from offence to completion of the case in court
Data on performance of probation services and prisons including re-offending rates by offender and institution, to be published from October 2011
From May 2012, the national crime mapping website, Police.uk, will provide the public with information on what happens next for crime occurring on their streets, i.e. police action and justice outcomes.
All remaining government-owned free datasets from Transport Direct, including cycle route data and the national car park database to be made available for free re-use from October 2011
Real time data on the Strategic Road Network including incidents, speeds and congestion to be published from December 2011
Office of Rail Regulator to increase the amount of data published relating to service performance and complaints by May 2012
Rail timetable information to be published weekly by National Rail from December 2011.
Naturally, I applaud these latest moves, and those who have worked to make them possible, but would like to raise two issues. The first is that this is just the beginning of the process, not the end: we need to show some results from the release of this information, and this means data hackers thinking hard about how it can be used in ways that ordinary people can really relate to – producing pretty infographics is not enough on its own.
Related to that, I fear that at some point there is going to be a backlash against releasing data in this way. This might be because the results are relatively thin, or, on the contrary, if the results are dramatic and prove politically embarrassing to someone. Of course, that's partly what transparency is supposed to do, but exposing problems for the sake of doing so without offering a constructive ideas towards resolving the issues is likely to be counterproductive. We need to make sure that the rather amazing successes of the open data movement are not squandered on easy and pointless victories that ultimately prove self-defeating.