Government data includes information about how the state operates, from workforce and spending to statistics about life in the UK that inform policy and public debate. It can be information on how public services are performing or information on basic national infrastructure, like geospatial data about land and location. It can also refer to the personal data that fuels public services and data that allows us to hold government to account.
Our new report identifies five government data gaps that need to be filled. One of the biggest missing datasets is the list of what data departments are responsible for – information relating to specific areas of work.
It might be hard to believe, but many departments do not even know what data they collect on the services for which they are responsible. For example, the Department for Transport recently tried to pull together a list of all its transport-related data, such as how many vehicles are on the road and whether trains are arriving on time. This involved running ‘interactive show-and-tell sessions’ with colleagues from around the department to find out what information they used in their day-to-day work.
They were attempting to put all of this information in one comprehensive list. While we don’t yet know how successful this exercise has been, we do know that this wasn’t just about listing data for the sake of it. Civil servants making decisions about roads and trains need to have this information to hand in order to make informed decisions and offer good advice on essential public services. In the case of DfT, this means improving road conditions and getting trains to run on time.
Transport is a good example of how knowing what data exists and making it accessible can make life better for people. Apps like Citymapper allow us to plan our journeys more easily and make instant decisions about taking one route or another, waiting for a bus or taking a train instead. These apps can do this because transport data is published in a consistent way and an open format – real-time, machine-readable – and not buried in PDF reports.
If the Government collected data in the same way, it could tell how well particular hospitals were performing, which government suppliers were delivering value for money and which policies were working. Government would work out what was working well and what wasn’t, where money should be spent and could be saved, and ensure its decisions were informed by the evidence.
For a Citymapper-state to become reality, we need to ask other questions that flow from the data we need, such as how we structure it so it can be used easily and widely, how we publish it so those outside government can make the most of it, how we ensure government and wider society has the right skills and culture to understand it, and how to ensure we all use the data responsibly.
All the talk of shiny future technologies like artificial intelligence will be only talk if we don’t get the basics right – basics like using unique open identifiers and registers, which make sure everyone is talking about the same thing, can help link relevant pieces of information together and can prevent the duplication of work. The idea that asking a data scientist to point a magic wand at petabyte piles of unsorted data will solve all of society’s problems is optimistic, to say the least.
The Government is starting to address some of these issues – on responsible use of data, for example, there’s the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation and data ethics framework. But what we need is a clear signal of ambition – of what government data should be, of where it fits into the wider economy and society, of what the future of government data needs to look like.
This is exactly what the National Data Strategy must do. It needs to make sense of the current landscape; answer the big questions, such as what data do you need to run a government – and run a country – and how that data should be collected, organised, published and used; and outline the milestones and measures to make that happen. With the National Data Strategy, the Government has the chance to grip these questions. It’s important it doesn't let the opportunity slip through its fingers.