Open Data

Trust in institutions to use data is much lower than trust in them in general, according to a new survey for the Royal Statistical Society.

The poll of just over two thousand British adults carried out by Ipsos MORI found that the media, internet services such as social media and search engines and telecommunication companies were the least trusted to use personal data appropriately. Read more

Chris Cook

The Freedom of Information Act has a clause which allows public authorities to ignore a request for information “if the request is vexatious”. It says little about what members of the public can do if they encounter vexatious government departments.

The Cabinet Office – which includes the prime minister’s office – seems now to be openly refusing to comply with the transparency law, especially when it comes to the person of the prime minister. His courtiers seem to regard FoIA requests as lèse-majesté, and to see fighting transparency as part of their roles. Read more

Kate Allen

By Kate Allen and Jonathan Moules

A new institution which aims to maximise the UK’s world-leading position in the emerging field of data use for the creation of new businesses and services is set to launch today.

The Open Data Institute, which was announced by George Osborne in last year’s Autumn Statement, will be the first such organisation of its kind in the world. It will receive £10m government funding over the next five years and aims to raise an equal amount from private donors. It has already attracted $750,000 from eBay founder and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar. Read more

Kate Allen

The government has made admirable moves towards openness and transparency in recent years, with one landmark step being to publish all payments by government departments of £500 or more. Communities secretary Eric Pickles has gone further, this week deciding to start publishing all spending by his department of £250 and above.

But there is a problem. The spreadsheets list each individual payment, not total amounts per supplier. And suppliers’ VAT numbers are not provided. This makes summarising the payments – often across thousands of lines of data – a very difficult job for anyone aspiring to create aggregate figures.

Let’s take Mr Pickles’ department, Communities & Local Government, as an example. Its latest quarterly release contains 9,750 lines of data. It encompasses all sorts of activities, from PFI grants to mobile phone line rental charges. Many of the payments require an expert jargon-buster to interpret: did you know that “NNDR billing authorities receipts” means business tax?

The smallest payment listed during the period was £1.24 to Banner Business Supplies for stationery. The largest was £1.9bn to the Office of the Paymaster General (those NNDR billing authorities receipts again). A government department is a very complicated entity and trying to understand its activities through scrutinising its history of individual payments is rather like trying to write a biography of a subject by looking solely at their bank statements. Read more

The coalition’s drive to open access to official data was welcome, but  more needed to be done to make information comprehensible, according to a report by the House of Commons’ public accounts committee, which monitors the effectiveness of public spending.

Official willingness to publish data was not enough, the committee said, since the information provided could be rather impenetrable. Some of the data are published as very large files that cannot be opened using a conventional home computer. Other files are difficult to interpret or can be only understood with the aid of large glossaries.

“It is simply not good enough to dump large quantities of raw data into the public domain, “ said Margaret Hodge, who chairs the committee. “[Data] must be accessible, relevant and easy for us all to understand. Otherwise the public cannot use them.”

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Chris Cook

Your birthday matters: children who are older when they start school as 4 year-olds outperform their peers. This is not a small effect, nor does it peter out as they get older. We can spot it easily at the national level among 16 year-olds. Read more