On the records

Public records, open data and Freedom of Information

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

What measures should we use for spotting schools that are effective at helping poor children? Not the one proposed by the Department for Education. Read more

The House of Lords authorities are refusing to hand over officials’ estimates of how much it will cost taxpayers to replace the chamber with a mostly elected senate, prompting anger from Tory politicians.

Officials have rejected a freedom of information request by the Financial Times, saying that the relevant information was produced “solely” for the joint committee on Lords reform. “A decision was taken by them not to publish it as part of their report,” they said in their response.

David Davis, MP for Haltemprice and Howden, said there was a “clear-cut case” for the cost estimates to be put in the public domain.

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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