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Government slammed over release of shoddy open data sets

01 Aug 2012
House of Parliament

The government has come under fire for simply "dumping" large amounts of data into the public domain that is "poorly presented and difficult to interpret".

This was the damning conclusion of a report from the Commons Public Accounts Committee, in its Implementing the Transparency Agenda report, which said while the aims of releasing more data sets are noble, the government has work to do to make it a worthwhile exercise.

"This committee fully supports the principle of greater openness and its potential to strengthen accountability and drive improvements in public services. But government has a lot more work to do before that potential is realised," said committee chairwoman Margaret Hodge.

"It is simply not good enough to dump large quantities of raw data into the public domain. It must be accessible, relevant and easy for us all to understand. Otherwise the public cannot use it to make comparisons and exercise choice, which is the key objective of the transparency agenda."

Hodge also said the Committee had concerns that some data that should be made public is being held back by private firms on dubious grounds and that the government has not fully considered the real-world implications of releasing so much data.

"One area of particular concern to this Committee is that private providers can hide behind ‘commercial confidentiality' to block the disclosure of relevant information. We must be able to follow the taxpayers' pound wherever it is spent," she added.

"Data is also being issued by government and other public bodies without any clear idea of the costs, benefits and risks of doing so. The government should develop a comprehensive analysis of what it actually costs to release data, and of the real benefits and risks.

The report also touched on issues of data completeness, claiming gaps in the information made available renders it mostly worthless.

"It does not help government to meet the objectives of the transparency agenda when large quantities of raw data are released without ensuring that the data are fit for purpose," the report noted.

"Some data are very difficult to interpret, such as on local government spending, and there are important gaps in information, such as incomplete price and performance information on adult social care."

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, who is driving the open data initiative, said in a statement that the government would be taking the committee's findings on board.

"We agree that open data allows citizens to hold governments to account, drives improvements in public services by informing choice, and provides a feedstock for innovation and growth," he said.

The government will be hoping the creation of its Open Data Institute will help it address some of these concerns and ensure that the benefits it has touted of releasing public data sets are realised in the real-world.

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Dan Worth

Dan Worth is the news editor for V3 having first joined the site as a reporter in November 2009. He specialises in a raft of areas including fixed and mobile telecoms, data protection, social media and government IT. Before joining V3 Dan covered communications technology, data handling and resilience in the emergency services sector on the BAPCO Journal

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