Monthly Archives: July 2011

The Government want to make data more transparent…

The government have made commitments to a whole new range of data transparency initiatives, which look set to make the UK government (and a world leader in open data.

The Guardian reported that in an open-letter to the cabinet, David Cameron announced a range of initiatives that will “represent the most ambitious open data agenda of any government in the world, and demonstrate our determination to make the public sector more transparent and accountable”, including a release of the Treasury’s Coins Database data and details on Government spending over £25,000.

The twenty-strong list of commitments are best explained in The Guardian Datablog’s breakdown but were announced on the Number 10 website in an article with some comment from Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office Minister.

Her words seemed to promote the data release as a benefit for everyday life;

The new commitments represent a quantum leap in government transparency and will radically help to drive better public services. Having this data available will help people find the right doctor for their needs or the best teacher for their child and will help frontline professionals compare their performance and effectiveness and improve it.” 

These proposals follow on from the announcements in May of last year that data on government spending and crime data would be made more accessible, leading to the launch of the National Crime Maps in February.

There are still issues with how the data will be handled and received by the public, and the public may also be sceptical of a massive data release set to aid the progress of investigative journalism, especially in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal and the closure of the News of the World.

The National Crime Maps were slated by critics and the data used was said to be near impossible to extract and use in a constructive way. It will be key to see how the government plan to release the new datasets and whether they will be in a usable, translatable and extractable format.

The criticisms of the Coins database are a perfect example of data being collated, ‘distributed’ and still being difficult to extract journalistic value from.

Let’s just say it’s hard to remain positive.

The Potential to Re-use Public Sector Information…

In other words, this 2005 regulation “encourages the re-use of public information for reasons other than its original purpose”.

Although often more useful for companies and industry, who are free to use requested public sector information for commercial purposes, it is also a time-saving endeavour for journalists and an easy-access route for the public.

The regulation applies to all information requested for by the use of (and defined by) the Freedom of Information Act, but educational establishments are exempt and a similar set of rules are in place.

These regulations do not force public bodies to keep information publically available unless otherwise required. They do, however, force public bodies to (courtesy of the very helpful Portsmouth Council);

  1. publish a list of the main documents which can be re-used
  2. publish any standard conditions associated with re-use
  3. publish any standard charges associated with re-use
  4. operate a request procedure
  5. operate a complaints/appeals procedure.

A response is required within 20 days, but since you’ll be forced to specify exactly what documents are being requested and the reasons as to why you are asking for the information, responses should be more prompt than with FOI procedure.

All that is required from you is a written request (e-mail is acceptable), with your name and  address, the information being requested and the reasons as to why you’re filing the request.

So look out for listings of documents on your Local Council’s website before you throw out a FOI request, and if you have any worries about pricing or the conditions of use of certain information, this is a good place to look.

UEA climate change data sets Freedom of Information precedent…

One of the most heated debates of recent years has been climate change, and on Friday, the Guardian reported that the University of East Anglia has had to relinquish masses of previously secret data on climate change because of Freedom of Information law.

It is said to be a victory for critics of the climatic research unit at the University, after two years of strong-holding vast numbers of global temperature records from fellow researchers and climate change sceptics.

However, the decision by the government’s information commissioner (Christopher Graham) is the first of its kind, and Johnathan Jones, who requested the data and is not a climate sceptic, puts it best;

“The most significant features of this decision are the precedents that have been set”

This decision should enable the release of more scientific research to the public as part and parcel of Freedom of Information law.

The law states that public bodies (including universities) have to release data unless there are good reasons not to, and in this case, the UEA said that legal exemptions applied; some of the data belonged to foreign meteorological offices and it was said that there would be value in selling the data to other researchers.

However, the decision by the commissioner “said suggestions that international relations could be upset by disclosure were “highly speculative”, and “it is not clear how UEA might have planned to commercially exploit the information requested.”

It is the first ruling made on climate data since ‘climategate’, and will obviously have huge implications in both the climate debate and in the request for information, as this case should outline procedure for universities and other public-servicing research centres when it comes to offering information the public.