Open data 'a very local revolution'
The government launched the next stage of its ambitious Open Data plans in a White Paper. Cabinet Office Francis Maude said he hopes to make ‘FOI redundant’ by publishing so much information online, and encouraging others to do so, that no one will need to ask for anything.
The White Paper builds on lots of developments over the past few years, from the publication of datasets on data.gov to online crime maps. All these reforms can, it is hoped, make public bodies more open, more efficient and more trusted. There are many potential problems on the way. Getting consistency and co-operation across departments and authorities will, as the paper acknowledges, be very difficult.
Much of the intended changes are, in every sense, local. The Open Data reforms to date have included publishing details of all local government spending over £500, salaries of local officials, service delivery details and crime data.
The government hopes all this information can drive its ‘localism’ agenda and support everything from police commissioners to the Big Society. This new information will allow people to choose services and empower the public by giving ‘armchairs auditors’ the ability to scrutinise councils, police and other providers. It may also encourage lots of other innovators to do new and interesting things with the data.
So where will this all go? All this information will make government more open without a doubt. It might also drive up standards. Whether government is more trusted as a result is another matter entirely.
FOI may offer some lessons here. Like FOI, where Open Data will go depends on how it is used. FOI is often used not for grand exposure or ‘armchair audits’. It is often for very focused, very specific local issues or ‘micro-politics’. This could be a particular campaign or an issue of importance to an individual: bins, roads or services or, put simply, data of use to someone’s everyday life. The focus is likely to be on the very local and not the ‘big’ spending or policy issues that the government hope.
A second lesson is about what sort of data the public want. In our study of local government, officials spoke of how people were not interested in ‘raw data’. Few had the time or energy to trawl through spread sheets. What they wanted is to have quick, easy to use websites or engines to help them access the information they want. So it may be that the new innovations such as Openly Local, which allows you to search council spending data, the school finder site or mySociety’s many innovations represent the future.
The government has spoken of kick starting a transparency ‘revolution’. The new Open Data changes may well bring more openness to local government. But the revolution will be local and the revolution will be personal.
Ben Worthy, lecturer at Birkbeck (University of London)