Public Services > Central Government

Ensuring value down the open data road

Published 23 February 2016

Professor Michael Luck at King's College London asks if following Canada, New Zealand and Ireland in establishing clear, easy to use public data access portals might allow the UK government to drastically benefit from data it holds


The power of open data has been made clear time and time again. Reports at both national and global levels cite the benefits to our economy in the billions and trillions, respectively. Here in the UK, The Shakespeare Review put the value of our public sector data at £6.8bn.

McKinsey has predicted the creation of an open data market sector as worth $3tn £2.1tn) worldwide.

Alongside such economic proof points, social benefits are a little more nebulous, but still clearly present.

For those living in London, or other major cities in the UK and abroad, the Open Data Initiative asks whether we remember using public transport before Citymapper?

Against this backdrop, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee recently released 'The big data dilemma' report (February 12th).

From the summary alone, it is clear the government grasps the importance of developing our big data capabilities as a country.

"Properly exploited, this data should be transformative, increasing efficiency, unlocking new avenues in life-saving research and creating as yet unimagined opportunities for innovation," said the findings.

The key phrase here is properly exploited. What our government is also aware of is that it can do much more than it currently is doing. We have made great strides in opening up some areas of data, such as transport, but taken only baby steps elsewhere.

This is partly blamed on the closed-off nature of government departments, with Experian claiming in the report that a "lack of joined up directional policy" has limited the value gained from open-access data.

The report cites three country case studies from which we could take our lead to overcome this: Canada, New Zealand and Ireland. All three countries have established clear, easy to use public data access portals that span many sectors. But will following these examples allow our government to drastically open up and benefit from the data housed across its various departments?

Reviewing these countries' three different open data initiatives, it becomes clear that, while there may be a will, existing restrictions on data access are still strongly felt across national governments.

There are still caveats that allow departments to deny the release of datasets ? a state of affairs that seems counter-intuitive, given that the perceived opaqueness of government departments has driven the call for more openness. In addition, that these initiatives seem to require public queries before releasing data again seems to fly in the face of the Open Government Partnership's (OGP) vision, which all three countries have signed up to, of making governments more transparent and accountable.

Thankfully, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report seems to have acknowledged such contradictions.

On page 22, it outlines plans for a process by which data within departments can be proactively searched for, reviewed and put forward for publication based on its potential uses.

The suggestion is that this should be undertaken by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) or Government Digital Service, given the separation from departments and expertise in data use. This proactivity would set the UK apart from its fellow OGP members, moving government departments previously averse to publishing data into a position where they feel they can work to get more information into the public domain.

The benefits of such a process are clear. Just a snapshot of some of the work we have undertaken at King's illustrates some of the possible benefits that can be derived through better access to and understanding of comprehensive real-world data sets.

One piece of work involves using electronic health records to design and test a system that mines such records when diagnosing symptoms, helping clinical professionals by giving them access to a wider array of conditions and cases than they may be familiar with or traditionally reference.

Another piece studies BBC iPlayer logs, with the aim to understand user consumption of catch-up services and reduce bandwidth and overall energy use caused by such services. Yet establishing a clear path for granting safe access to inherently private data is a significant barrier, where increased government funding for broad interdisciplinary research could pave the way forward.

While each of these examples examines a very specific problem and solution, imagine what could be achieved if many different institutions were able to access the data, for example through safe ways to share data anonymously, or through greater investment in making data that is already public more accessible.

This kind of big data use is why financial benefits in the trillions are quoted when discussing the benefits of such technological advancement.

We can radically alter how our world runs for the better if we can use data to improve our understanding of it. 'The big data dilemma' report is a welcome move towards this state of affairs and, through our understanding of big data, its collection, processing and application, we aim to be leaders in this revolution.

Professor Michael Luck is the Dean of the Faculty of Natural and Mathematical Sciences at King's College London

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