Toward GONG conference anent International Right to Know Day September 28, we have interviewed one of the guests Andrew Stott, who was Director for Transparency and Digital Engagement for the United Kingdom Government. He led the work to open up government data and create ‘data.gov.uk‘.
Toward GONG conference anent International Right to Know Day September 28, we have interviewed one of the guests – Andrew Stott, who was Director for Transparency and Digital Engagement for the United Kingdom Government. He led the work to open up government data and create ‘data.gov.uk’; and after the 2010 Election he led the implementation of the new Government’s commitments on Transparency of central and local government including delivery of the Prime Minister’s personal pledges to release key finance and staffing data within the Government’s first six months in office.
His role also included responsibility for increasing the Government’s capability to use new media to communicate and collaborate with the public, including the crowd-sourcing of ideas for spending reductions and increasing civil liberties and the greater use of the major social media platforms include Facebook and Twitter.
Following his retirement in December 2010 he continues to advise UK Ministers on the release of government data and other parts of their e-government programme as a member of the UK Public Sector Transparency Board, as well as advising other governments and contributing to the international development of the Open Data agenda.
Between 2004 and 2009 Andrew Stott was UK Government Deputy Chief Information Officer and Chair of the UK Government Chief Technology Officers Council. He joined the civil service in 1976 and subsequently worked in a variety of UK public sector bodies including the Department for Transport, the Department for Work and Pensions, HM Prison Service, the Post Office and the Cabinet Office in policy, finance, programme management and in both strategy and implementation roles in information technology. He is a graduate of the University of Cambridge where he studied both Mathematics and Law.
What is the main idea and purpose of the data.gov.uk?
data.gov.uk was set up as a single, online place where people could find all the government’s open data. It also provides visualisations of key transparency datasets (such as the organisational structure of each government department (http://reference.data.gov.uk/gov-structure/organogram/?dept=dft&post=1) and a gallery of the great applications which people have made using the data (http://www.data.gov.uk/apps). It also contains supporting information about the UK Government’s Transparency programme and community features for people to comment and sharing information about the government’s open data and how to use it.
How did You explain the idea to those who were opposing it?
The government collects a lot of data as part of doing its job and providing services to the public. Just because the government has used the data does not mean that others cannot use it in other ways. Now that we have the World Wide Web it’s cheap and easy to release that data so that others can use it in new, innovative ways to build businesses and to create additional social value. It also allows citizens to work with government to improve key public services locally such as hospitals, schools and policing. And Ministries can get the public to help them improve their data – for instance the Ministry of Transport worked with Open Street Map to validate the data about 300,000 bus-stops and as a result data on 18,000 bus-stops was corrected. Research for the European Commission has suggested that the benefit of releasing open government data could be as much as 140 billion Euro a year across the 27 countries of the European Union.
What are You most proud of?
I am proud of many aspects of data.gov.uk! – including the community of data users and developers who have worked with the government, the people within departments who have persuaded their colleagues to give their data, big decisions such as the release of all the low and medium resolution mapping and other geospatial data, the implementation of the Transparency initiative so that, within six months, every Ministry was publishing individual payments and the individual salaries of their senior staff.
I’m sure You had experience with ‘Yes, minister’ culture – has all this open data ideology had any effect on this?
Policy making itself is becoming more open and more evidence based – indeed the UK Government has recently taken new steps for some policy making to be led from outside the civil service. Open Data is a key part of this. What’s more, the government and the central civil service have realised that they have reached the limits of what can achieved by setting targets on public services from the centre of government; so the government and the civil service is releasing data so that citizens locally can compare the performance of their schools, hospitals and policing with other areas and so that they can put pressure on teachers, doctors and policemen locally to improve. Open Data allows “bottom-up” pressure for improvements as well as ‘top-down’ targets.
In Croatia we have little experience with availability mass amounts of raw data, but we do see that sometimes allowing access to it may be used as a tactic for overwhelming the user, so, what’s the next step in this evolution – how do we prevent such abuse?
We have to face the fact that many government datasets are very large. And it’s essential for transparency that the full, raw data is released and not just a government-produced summary. Nevertheless when some of the government data in the UK was released there were initial accusations that the government was overwhelming the user. For instance on one day we published the central Ministry of Finance database of public spending, 5 gigabytes of data with 24 million rows. When journalists tried to load it into a spreadsheet it crashed their computers – it was simply far too large. However within 24 hours the Guardian Newspaper and an NGO (OpenSpending.org) had both created a web-based tool to search and navigate the database, and within 48 hours the Guardian newspaper published a double-page spread with six stories from its specialist journalists, each of whom had found a new story buried in the data. What we have found is that effective use of the data requires not only that the government releases the data but that it helps civil society – journalists, NGOs, community groups – to develop the open data ‘ecosystem’ to interpret and use that data effectively. When we started data.gov.uk none of this existing, but we worked with the Guardian and Telegraph newspapers among others, with academic institutions such as the University of Southampton, and with NGOs such as MySociety and the Open Knowledge Foundationto help create it.
What are Your thoughts about the future – what are the costs of postponing e-government?
The Open Data movement is growing fast – at both national level and at the level of individual cities and municipalities. There are now more than 260 open data portals around the world like data.gov.uk. What’s more, the ability of civil society to use open data effectively is growing all the time – I have just returned from the annual Open Knowledge Festival, held this year in Helsinki Finland, which had over 1000 open data, open government and open development activists from dozens of countries (and from all continents) exchanging knowledge and best practice in using data to improve their countries, communities and societies.