National Statistician updates select committee on progress of open data agenda

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National Statistician Jil Matheson was among those questioned by MPs this week (11 November 2013) as part of an ongoing inquiry into the use of statistics in government.

Matheson took part in the third session of Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) inquiry into government statistics and open data. The session’s objectives were to assess the aims of the current open data strategy and what needs to be done to implement them.

Michael Fallon, minister for business and enterprise at BIS and Nick Hurd from the Cabinet Office talked about how the strategy had progressed so far. Michael Fallon confirmed that so far BIS had published 1300 datasets, the third highest in Whitehall.

Bernard Jenkin, who chairs PASC, commented that government is ‘willing in principle but finding it hard in practice to be enthusiastic about open data’. Nick Hurd countered this, saying that his department had made ‘enormous progress’.

Jil Matheson confirmed that more than half of the data currently available on the government’s data portal, www.data.gov.uk is from the Government Statistical Service (GSS). She pointed out however, that government departments don’t always use the data they have to drive business decisions. Until recently, policy professionals have had little training in using statistics and data. Matheson stressed the importance of stimulating and supporting data literacy in the civil service, but also in the general population.

Concerns were expressed by PASC member Kelvin Hopkins about the Postcode Address File (PAF) being privatised as part of Royal Mail and asked if this was detrimental to the open data agenda. Fallon argued that PAF is an integral part of the Royal Mail, which uses the data and keeps it up-to-date. He pointed out that the legislation applying to the PAF is still regulated and that PAF data is free to charities and microbusinesses in their first year. ‘PAF outside of the Royal Mail wouldn’t have benefitted anyone,’ he argued.

Jil Matheson said that a widely used, high quality address register was ‘fundamental to effective statistics and open data’. ONS spent a considerable amount of time creating a comprehensive address register using data from PAF, Ordnance Survey and local government, in the run up to the 2011 census. Glen Watson, director general at the Office for National Statistics, confirmed that this work has considerably improved the quality of all three datasets. Since then, GeoPlace has been established and if successful, could be used in any future census, although it is as yet unclear about how openly available this information would be in line with open data principles.

While Matheson confirmed that at present she has no concerns about availability for use within government, she would like to see the PAF available to anyone who provides data. ‘If the PAF is unavailable then people will stop using it,’ she said.

The session is available to view here.

Official Statistics Open Data Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) Jil Matheson

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