Report of MPs’ inquiry into UK statistics and open data published

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Access to public sector data must never be sold or given away, and should be made open by default, according to a report on Statistics and Open Data published on 17 March 2014 by the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC).

One of the report's key recommendations is that data should be made 'open' by default, ie accessible to all, free of restrictions on use or redistribution, and in a digital, machine-readable format. 'There should be a presumption that restrictions on government data releases should be abolished,' the report notes. ‘It may be necessary to exempt certain data sets from this presumption, but this should be on a case-by-case basis.' The report also said that charging for some data may occasionally be appropriate, 'but this should become the exception rather than the rule.'

PASC chair Bernard Jenkin MP was highly critical of the recent sale of the Personal Address File. 'The sale of the PAF with the Royal Mail was a mistake,' he said. 'Public access to public sector data must never be sold or given away again. This type of information, like census information and many other data sets, is very expensive to collect and collate into useable form, but it also has huge potential value to the economy and society as a whole if it is kept as an open, public good.'

The report calls for government departments to produce a plan for using data to enhance their performance by the end of 2014 and that by January 2015, they should abandon the 'outdated and wasteful practice whereby Departments have to pay for access to data that has been produced by Government itself.' The Office for National Statistics, it said, should 'be at the forefront of this movement and show the way forward by example'. It said that there must be a willingness to 'publish early even if imperfect' and invited the government to publish a list of when each data series becomes open.

The report also called for statisticians to become more active in promoting open data. 'Government statisticians should become champions of open data,' it notes, under a heading 'The Role of Statisticians'. It adds that statisticians should collaborate with 'colleagues in other civil service professions to bring more sense and usability to open data initiatives' and recommends that the government move swiftly to encourage training of more data scientists.

Mike Hughes, who chairs the Royal Statistical Society's National Statistics Advisory Group, said: 'The RSS welcomes the key findings of the report, in particular, that the concept of open data is poorly defined and that there is a lack of strategy and coordination on open data within government. The Society will continue to promote open data, and raise awareness of the benefits and challenges that come with it.'

PASC launched the inquiry in July 2013 and sought input from a variety of sources, including open data champions Full Fact and the Open Data Institute. The report makes a number of recommendations relating to the mass of data collected by government and its agencies, which has been valued by Deloitte at around £1.8 billion in 2011/12.

Open Data

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