Laying the foundations for open data engagement

When the first platform was launched, it was a great example of the 'rewired state' spirit: pioneering the rapid development of a new digital part of government using open source code, and developed through fluid collaboration between government staff, academics, open source developers, and open data activists from outside government. But essentially, the first was bolted onto the existing machinery of government: a data outpost scraping together details of datasets from across departments, and acting as the broker providing the world with information on where to access that data. And it is fair to say was designed by data-geeks, for data-geeks. 

Tom Steinberg has argued that data portals need not appeal to the masses , and that most people will access government data through apps, but there are thousands of citizens who want direct access to data, and it is vital that data portals don't exclude those unfamiliar with the design metaphors of source and software repositories. That's why it is great to see a redesign of that takes steps to simplify the user experience for anyone seeking out data, whether as a techie, or not.

The most interesting changes to though are more subtle than the cleaner navigation and unexpected (but refreshing) green colour scheme. Behind the scenes Antonio Acuna (SP) and his team have been overhauling the admin system where data records are managed, with some important implications. Firstly, the site includes a clear hierarchy of publishing organisations (over 700 of them) and somewhere in each hierarchy there is a named contact to be found. That means that when you're looking at any dataset it's now easier to find out who you can contact to ask questions about it, or, if the data doesn't tell you what you want, the new lets you exercise your Right to Information (and hopefully soon Right to Data) and points you to how you can submit a Freedom of Information request.

Whilst at first most of these enquiries will go off to the lead person in each publishing organisation who updates their records, the site allows contact details to be set at the dataset level, moving towards the idea of data catalogues not as a firewall sitting between government and citizens, but as the starting point of a conversation between data owners/data stewards and citizens with an interest in the data. Using data to generate conversation, and more citizen-state collaboration, is one of the key ideas in the 5 stars for open data engagement , drafted at this year's UKGovCamp.

The addition of a Library section with space  for detailed documentation on datasets, including space to share the PDF handbooks that often accompany complex datasets and that share lots of the context that can't be reduced down into neat meta-data, is a valuable addition too. I hope we'll see a lot more of the 'social life' of the datasets that government holds becoming apparent on the new site over time - highlighting that not only can data be used to tell stories, but that there is a story behind each dataset too.

Open data portals have a hard balance to strike - between providing 'raw' datasets and disintermediating data, separating data from the analysis and presentation layers government often fixes on top - and becoming new intermediaries, giving citizens and developers the tools they need to effectively access data. Data portals take a range of approaches, and most are still a long way from striking the perfect balance. But the re-launched lays some important foundations for a continued focus on user needs, and making sure citizens get the data they need, and, in the future, access to all the tools and resources that can help them make sense of it, whether those tools come from government or not.



  1. Comment by Anonymous posted on

    Just been trying out the new site. One thing that strikes me is the variety of different formats and structures the data is held in. There are already 8593 datasets, it seems for a lot of people it's a bit too much effort at the moment to fiddle about looking through the spreadsheets trying to find the results they want. The tools and apps really are key, but with so many different formats it seems like a new app will be required for each dataset - this doesn't even start to deal with what happens if someone wants to mash two datasets together? What do you think the next steps are, to allow a non-techy to ask the data a complicated question (e.g. "How correlated is the average income of an area to proximity of housing to high speed roads")! Or is this always going to require dedicated tech people to actually join the different datasets?

    • Replies to Anonymous>

      Comment by Anonymous posted on

      Great point Michael.  I work with a few of the data sets published and came to the same conclusion.  I am a database specialist and you're right - unless a common simple method of accessing the data is given you're never going to be able to answer the types of questions you just asked.  I've recently put together an API that attempts to close the gap between the raw data sets and the poor end user trying to make sense of it all.  Early days still.

  2. Comment by Anonymous posted on

    I've been quite interested in this govt. initiative and think the OpenData Initiative would benefit from the community brainstorming and building interesting solutions around it.



  3. Comment by Anonymous posted on

    I think that this is a very important project. I think easy public access to data is very important. I am a British economics PhD student. I am quite proficient at finding and processing data. Unfortunately, when it comes to accessing economic data on the UK is far inferior to the American Federal Reserve of St. Louis at:

    The simple and pragmatic set up of the FRED data website is not perfect. However, and many of the individual statistics bureaus of the Uk are close to useless. The website seems to give more reports and surveys than anything else. Incredibly when checking for xls files with economic data sets it comes up with Only 9 data sets (fairly weird and obscure ones at that). The fact that the FRED is a superior source on UK economic data, in terms of quick simple accessibility, than the UK government websites is attrocious.

    I believe, possibly incorrectly, that what people want who go to a site called is something life the FRED website but with more detailed information on the UK. A particularly great feature of the FRED website is the graph application that saves one the time and effort of downloading the data and making the graphs one's self.

    Put more simply:

    Recreate the FRED data site with detailed data on the UK and on subjects not just pertaining to the UK economy.

    Recreate the FRED data site with detailed data on the UK and on subjects not just pertaining to the UK economy.

    Recreate the FRED data site with detailed data on the UK and on subjects not just pertaining to the UK economy.

    If this could be done then that would be a real boon for people who want to be able to quickly understand the state of the country.

    It would take 3 compotent people 3 months to do this. If you could hire people, or subcontract, to people who set up the FRED data system (or the google data explorer) it would take even less.


  4. Comment by Anonymous posted on

    It seems like these are still early days for the initiative. None the less, I am greatly encouraged for the future.


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