26 January 2015

Jose M Alonso is the Open Data programme manager at the World Wide Web Foundation. He is an Open Data pioneer and advocate with extensive experience in the eGovernment and Web standards fields. Here he writes about the Open Data Barometer, the UK's place at the top – and what the Government has to do to be fully open.

Governments worldwide have acknowledged the potential of Open Government Data to reduce corruption, increase transparency, and improve government services. To keep track of progress, and advocate for solutions to challenges, the World Wide Web Foundation (Web Foundation) produces an annual report – the Open Data Barometer. The second edition, released this week, showed slow progress globally. Over 90% of the 86 countries surveyed in the Open Data Barometer still do not publish key datasets in open formats. Despite a G8 (now G7) Open Data Charter signed in 2013, which committed these nations to become ‘open by default’, almost half of these countries are still not publishing the key datasets promised. The survey did contain some good news for the UK though - the nation topped the Barometer’s country rankings. What contributed to this world-leading position, and what must the UK do to maintain and improve on its ranking? Why did the UK top the Barometer? The Barometer assessed countries in three areas: readiness, implementation and impact. On the readiness component, the UK ranked second, following in the footsteps of Sweden thanks to strong laws and policies to support open data. Government departments are required to embed the publication of data into their day-to-day work. An active community of civil society and media users has been fostered by organisations such as the Open Data Institute and the Open Data User Group. Implementation scores were where the UK put clear blue water between itself and its peer countries. With a score of 94/100, the UK was ten points clear of the US, which ranked second on this component. The UK is the only G7 country to have an open company registry and one of only two countries to publish land ownership data in open formats. The UK saw strong political impact from open data, followed by economic impact and social impact. An example of an organisation which combines all three of these is Spend Network, which, according to reports, collects “the spend statements and tender documents published by government in the UK and Europe and then publishes this data openly so that anyone can use it. The company currently hosts over £1.2 trillion of transactions from the UK and over 1.8 million tenders from across Europe.” Spend Network along with the Institute for Government also examined the transactions of 247 UK government entities, studying 38 million transactions with over 180,000 suppliers. What does all this mean? Does this table-topping position mean the UK’s open data policies and operations are perfect? Not at all. As Sir Tim Berners-Lee said when he launched this year’s Barometer, the UK has “a long way to go”. For instance, in the same year that the UK Government sold off the vitally important Postal Address File as part of the privatisation of the national mail service, La Poste in France made postcodes available as open data. Further, flagship datasets in the UK, such as transactional level spending for government departments, are often out of date. More broadly, open data alone does not equal true transparency and accountability. As noted by the World Wide Web Foundation’s 2014 Web Index research report, the UK has some broader areas to work on. It came 21st on the ranking for a “free and open web”, among the worst in Europe, cementing a trend of diminishing internet privacy and freedom. The UK is ranked poorly for “personal data protection laws and regulations” – coming 36 in the world. It is no good publishing data openly if citizens fear that they cannot discuss it privately and securely online, or that their personal data is at risk. What should the UK doing going forward? In the Open Data Barometer’s analysis of common success factors around the world, three key pillars emerge. These are:

  • High-level political commitment. While the UK’s current government seems committed to open data and effective laws are in place, it is important that this is maintained and evolved in future. In the UK, high-level commitment would be well-served by a Chief Data Officer – someone who has the power to compel the release of data as high-quality, open data from public bodies, while also ensuring that robust data protection and privacy safeguards are in place.
  • Consistent and sustained support for both national and city-level open data programmes. City-level open data initiatives are delivering some of the most interesting impacts we observe across the globe. Policy initiatives such as “making local councils more transparent and accountable to local people” should be supported, sustained and enhanced. The UK could also look to mandate that government procurement contracts require the release of open data. Open access to R&D data funded by public money would also represent a significant step forward.
  • Enhance the ability of government, civil society and entrepreneurs to understand and use data effectively. Resources dedicated to building the capacity of data users both inside and outside the government are critical to maintaining a supply-demand data balance and an increase in this understanding and ability can be accomplished through both training and adapting open data tools to local needs. The UK has taken strong initial steps here, but sustained efforts and investments are needed for open data to become ‘business as usual’.