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January 22, 2010

The right and left hands of open government data in the UK

As I'm sure everyone knows by now, the UK Government's data.gov.uk site was formally launched yesterday to a significant fanfare on Twitter and elsewhere.  There's not much I can add other than to note that I think this initiative is a very good thing and I hope that we can contribute more in the future than we have done to date.

[Edit: I note that the video of the presentation by Tim Berners-Lee and Nigel Shadbolt is now available.]

I'd like to highlight two blog posts that hurtled past in my Twitter stream yesterday.  The first, by Brian Hoadley, rightly reminds us that Open data is not a panacea – but it is a start:

In truth, I’ve been waiting for Joe Bloggs on the street to mention in passing – “Hey, just yesterday I did ‘x’ online” and have it be one of those new ‘Services’ that has been developed from the release of our data. (Note: A Joe Bloggs who is not related to Government or those who encircle Government. A real true independent Citizen.)

It may be a long wait.

The reality is that releasing the data is a small step in a long walk that will take many years to see any significant value. Sure there will be quick wins along the way – picking on MP’s expenses is easy. But to build something sustainable, some series of things that serve millions of people directly, will not happen overnight. And the reality, as Tom Loosemore pointed out at the London Data Store launch, it won’t be a sole developer who ultimately brings it to fruition.

The second, from the Daily Mash, is rather more flippant, New website to reveal exactly why Britain doesn't work:

Sir Tim said ordinary citizens will be able to use the data in conjunction with Ordnance Survey maps to show the exact location of road works that are completely unnecessary and are only being carried out so that some lazy, stupid bastard with a pension the size of Canada can use up his budget before the end of March.

The information could also be used to identify Britain's oldest pothole, how much business it has generated for its local garage and why in the name of holy buggering fuck it has never, ever been fixed.

And, while we are on the subject of maps and so on, today's posting to the Ernest Marples Blog, Postcode Petition Response — Our Reply, makes for an interesting read about the government's somewhat un-joined-up response to a petition to "encourage the Royal Mail to offer a free postcode database to non-profit and community websites":

The problem is that the licence was formed to suit industry. To suit people who resell PAF data, and who use it to save money and do business. And that’s fine — I have no problem with industry, commercialism or using public data to make a profit.

But this approach belongs to a different age. One where the only people who needed postcode data were insurance and fulfilment companies. Where postcode data was abstruse and obscure. We’re not in that age any more.

We’re now in an age where a motivated person with a laptop can use postcode data to improve people’s lives. Postcomm and the Royal Mail need to confront this and change the way that they do things. They may have shut us down, but if they try to sue everyone who’s scraping postcode data from Google, they’ll look very foolish indeed.

Finally — and perhaps most importantly — we need a consistent and effective push from the top. Number 10’s right hand needs to wake up and pay attention to the fantastic things the left hand’s doing.

Without that, we won’t get anywhere.

Hear, hear.

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