The University of Southampton

ECS Professors influence UK policy change on public data

Published: 18 November 2009

ECS Professors Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Nigel Shadbolt are behind the significant change in policy towards public data announced by the Prime Minster yesterday (17 November).

Speaking to an invited audience at 10 Downing Street, Gordon Brown announced that the Government would be exploring ways to make some of the Ordnance Survey maps freely available online from April 2010. The Prime Minister also signalled his intention to publish 2,000 data sets in the New Year, potentially including all legislation, road-traffic information, property prices by stamp-duty yield, and motoring offences by county.

Both Tim Berners-Lee and Nigel Shadbolt were present at yesterday’s briefing, which represented key results of their work advising the Government over the last five months. As Government Information Advisors they have been persuasive in laying out the benefits of publishing non-personal public data for reuse, in machine-readable formats and without restrictive licences.

Writing in today’s Times (Put in your postcode, out comes the data), they note that their work is not about building a huge new IT project but more about changing attitudes: ‘We just need to change the culture of Whitehall and town halls’, they write, ‘so that data is seen as public property. At present too much is hidden from public view, compartmentalised into silos and difficult to process.’

The Government’s announcement represents a very large amount of progress over a surprisingly short timeframe: ‘It’s moving very quickly, said Nigel Shadbolt. ‘There seems to be a real appetite from users, developers and data-holders to do more with our non-personal public data.’

‘One of the most important aspects of yesterday’s announcement is the access it provides to geographical information, since it’s geography that makes sense of so much of the other information that has and will become available.’

Under the direction of the ECS Professors, the Cabinet Office has already launched a developer’s version of the website, which will be public in the New Year. It currently provides access to 1100 datasets, ranging from traffic counts on the road network, through reference data on schools, to the Farm Survey. Over 1000 people are already using the site to improve and refine it for its public release.

In addition to the public gain in making the data accessible, Nigel Shadbolt also sees a range of potential benefits for technology and Web standards, and for business applications: ‘This kind of work is a good illustration of the objectives of Web Science,’ he said. ‘It includes technology development, policy, economics, and social change.’

‘Over the coming weeks we will continue to push to get more data available in addition to seeking Government commitments for the release of that data. We also want to ensure we can inspire the community to exploit the data and give us applications that will enable it to be used as widely as possible.’

The Times article concludes with a reaffirmation of the importance of this work: ‘Openly available public data not only creates economic and social capital, it also creates bottom-up pressure to improve public services. Data is essential in enabling citizens to choose between public service providers. It helps them to compare their local services with services elsewhere. It enables all of us to lobby for improvement. Public data is a public good.’

For further information contact Joyce Lewis; tel. +44(0)23 8059 5453.

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