Welcome to the Whitehall data sausage factory

For all you doubters who have questioned the value of the Coin Database release, Stephan Shakespeare has written a paean to transparency.

It is one of those moments that changes things for ever. When people can’t see where their money goes, they can make no comment, they can have no influence. Governments live and die by public approval; and once you can link spending decisions to identifiable civil servants, their careers will also live or die by our approval; so this kind of openness to scrutiny is utterly revolutionary. And it’s virtually irreversible: no politician would dare to draw the curtains again.

Hyperbole aside, there is a pretty compelling logic to this. And there is no doubt that Steve Hilton and his merry band of see-through evangelists deserve credit for this early data release. But in spite of all the good work over at the Open Knowledge Foundation and the Guardian Data blog, I’m still unconvinced that the all the answers are buried in the Coin Database.

As any intelligence analyst will tell you, there is a great difference between information and meaningful information. The noise to enlightenment ratio with the Coin data is high, not least because it is not designed as a means of auditing spending. This gives a broad breakdown of government expenditure categories but it does not specify in detail how the money was actually spent or who it went to.

Sadly, in most cases it serves to obscure rather than reveal. Let’s hope the Tories stick to their principles and convince Whitehall to release more rich and meaningful data.

To me, at this stage, the Coin data simply seems like the sausage meat that goes into the PESA analysis (which is excellent). There is some interesting extra detail (the Guardian have worked out that £1.8bn was spent on consultancy and there should be some interesting numbers on contract workers). But any jewels will take much longer to uncover, if they exist at all.

For now, leave the data mining to the geeks and instead explore this superb presentation of government spending. This chart of education expenditure per capita (yes the top one is Northern Ireland) is one of dozens of fascinating takes on where your money goes.