While recognising the potential benefits of utilising public sector data, the independent review ‘Making digital government work for everyone' (PDF) also acknowledges the current obstacles to this - and examines what considerations might need to guide the principles underpinning any sharing of public data.
Within the report - commissioned by Labour MP Chi Onwurah - is a substantial section, ‘Restore confidence in open, shared and personal data’, which makes a number of recommendations in this area.
The report acknowledges current frustrations within the open data community in accessing open data in a usable format. ‘Open data is currently seen as an adjunct to the core function of government rather than one that is driven by people’s needs,’ the report comments. ‘This leads to incorrect datasets being released, datasets being released in inappropriate formats or with poor data quality.’ The report recommends that efforts are made to improve data releases, as well as making it easier for individuals to request open data sets from government.
Frustration regarding the recent decision by government not to open up address data when Royal Mail was privatised is also acknowledged. ‘Government has had both the opportunity and mandate to establish an authoritative open address dataset that would form part of our National Information Infrastructure; a dataset that could link to the open Land Registry data and start to resolve the whole area of geospatial data. Yet it has failed to do so.’ The report predicts that the consequences of this will become 'more severe as technology automation increases in the future'.
Another key recommendation is to set up a review, 'Data and Society', led by professionals such as lawyers, policy experts, research academics and computer scientists. Its aim would be ‘to define a clear set of public interest principles’ around data sharing and analytics projects, encouraging 'input from across the country' as well as engaging with the big data, open data and privacy initiatives in the EU.
The report also notes the current public anxiety around personal data - citing recent research carried out by Ipsos-MORI for the Royal Statistical Society - saying it was 'noticeable' that much of the public concern was around the sale of government-held data to private companies or the risks associated with lack of anonymity or poor security.
Other recommendations made in the report include getting both the public and the public sector better equipped to deal with digital information, in terms of access to digital services and in terms of training.
Mike Hughes, chair of the RSS's National Statistics Advisory Group, welcomes the report. ‘This review recognises how the data agenda is going to drive prosperity, policy and democracy in the coming years,’ he said. ‘It is excellent to see the commitment to open data and in particular an open address list, which fits very well with what is outlined in the RSS Data Manifesto.
‘We will be pleased to help support any "Data and Society" review that is initiated to help develop the public interest principles which should underpin data sharing and analytics, and would argue there is a strong case for data sharing for statistics and research purposes.’