Introducing the UK Data Service

Written by Oz Flanagan on . Posted in Features

Open data
For social scientists, there have traditionally been a number of sources from which to get economic, government and census data. Now there is a new online resource which promises to put all of these sources into one place. Simon Briscoe, who serves on its governing board, reports.

The UK Data Service is a new initiative which offers a single access point to a wide range of social and economic data. The new body came into existence at the end of last year and its visible face, the website, went live this month.

Consolidating data sources

It unifies and extends the existing functionality of several long-established data services including the Economic and Social Data Service (ESDS), the ESRC Census Programme, the Secure Data Service, the Survey Question Bank and other elements of the infrastructure currently provided by the ESRC. This covers many well-known government-sourced data sets such as those covering population, family resources, the labour market, travel and food, and international data from sources including Eurostat, IMF and OECD.

The ESRC has been providing data infrastructure for the social sciences for over four decades and has justifiably high hopes for the UK Data Service as it aims to provide the research base for the next generation of students and decision makers.

The service will support researchers in academia and government and will embrace the spirit of ‘open data’.

The new service will start where its predecessor organisations left off. It will continue the legacy of being the trusted national digital repository for a wide range of data providers and will continue to offer access to the extensive range of social and economic data. But it’s not just a new name, website and logo, as it will do more in terms of access, data, tools and support.

Embracing ‘open data’

The service will support researchers in academia and government, just as its predecessor organisations did, but in addition it will embrace the spirit of ‘open data’ by making it easier for others with an interest in data to get at the numbers. This is only right – and now expected – when the data collection has been funded by public money. The service will extend use of its data to the widest possible range of policy and practitioner communities, in and out of government. This will enhance the impact that rich data have on evidence-based policy making and the understanding of society more generally. The service will be targeting potential users in various domains including education, business and the third sector.

Most data collections are available to all registered users; however, some have access restrictions due to the data redistribution licences agreed in the past with data providers.

New data sources

The service is also planning to add new data to its collection. There will be no immediate changes to the range of data available, but over time many new government and non-government series and sources will be added, making much more data openly available.

The new enlarged organisation will be much better placed to develop and promote common standards and agreed strategies for data preparation, processing, documentation and preservation to promote data sharing and re-use. Its impact could well be felt way beyond its own service. It should be able to make more progress in helping data users develop the skills necessary to use the data. And, in the longer term, the Service will also be offering a broader and more integrated range of tools to users. Separate funds are being allocated to drive innovative and dynamic developments relating to either technology or data acquisition.

The ambition is considerable, but in the first instance there should be no disruption to existing users. Staff have been busy in the last few months creating a unified point of access, including a helpdesk that draws on staff experts at host organisations across the UK. All the same data and other resources are, of course, there as before.

Easily accessible

Existing users will not need to do anything differently. If you are currently a registered user of ESDS, the Census Programme or Secure Data Service, your registration will continue. The UK Data Service will continue its specialist services such as providing controlled access to sensitive and/or potentially disclosive data through secure settings.

The UK Data Service is led by Matthew Woollard (University of Essex), as the overall director, and Keith Cole (University of Manchester), David Martin, (University of Southampton) and James Nazroo (University of Manchester) as deputy directors. It will also incorporate a new Census Support Service (CSS) led by John Stillwell (University of Leeds).

The Service is responsible to a governing board chaired by Gordon Marshall, director of the Leverhulme Trust. The board has the responsibility to ensure that the Service is developed, managed and maintained in a manner that maximises its benefit as a long-term world-class data resource. The board is very excited about the impact that the UK Data Service can have on research and the access to data, especially when put alongside other initiatives, including the UK Data Forum and the Administrative Data Task Force, and changes in the publication of government data – notably via and enhancements to the government statistics service websites.

Feedback welcomed

Do try the website at and share your feedback through the links provided.

To stay up to date on news and developments from the UK Data Service, sign up for the e-newsletter on the Service’s home page or visit Twitter (@ukdataservice) or Facebook.

UK Data Service

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