Data for all

27 January 2010 at 11:00 am Leave a comment

Oliver Wright writes:

Last Thursday was something of a watershed for the UK government. was launched, becoming one of a growing number of government portals giving us access to reams of official government data. That might not sound terribly exciting, but for businesses and research organisations that use official and reliable information, the announcement may fundamentally change the way they operate.

Government data has traditionally been stored in departmental silos where it is difficult to access. Many aggregation sites, such as the ONS, are notoriously hard to navigate.

The Guardian has been campaigning for such an initiative for some time,  although its progress could only be described as incremental. In one of a number of articles on the site (you can find them here), they trace the birth of to a comment made by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented the world wide web, to the Prime Minister at a dinner for recipients of the Order of Merit:

“Gordon Brown said to me, ‘How should the UK make the best use of the internet?’ and I replied that the government should just put all of its data on it,” Berners-Lee recalled. “And he said ‘OK, let’s do it’.”

The site has been open to developers since October, in which time – without wanting to rely too heavily on one newspaper – The Guardian has created a portal which allows you to search for data from other ‘open government’ sources. It’s rather ambitiously called World Government Data, although currently supports only Anglophone countries. It mimics other efforts to combine official data from around the globe in an accessible way.

Why is this good news? Firstly, it seems only fair that taxpayers have access to information whose collection they have financed. Secondly, releasing such a vast body of data to the public enables a greater pool of talent to find ways to use it, in building new applications or finding new insight.

Ito World, for example, created some great visualisations using transport data . They were also responsible for this amazing video showing the edits made to OpenStreetMap over the course of 2008:

Greater access to data like this can have profound consequences. Members of the online mapping community scrambled together data from various sources to create an OpenStreetMap of Port-au-Prince that aid workers could use to help co-ordinate their efforts. Whilst their work was undoubtedly appreciated, it would have been made far easier with greater access. Here’s to Open Data.

The image above is used with kind permission of Jason Hawkes.

Entry filed under: innovation, research, technology. Tags: , , , , .

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