UK open government data: the results of the official audit


 UK open government data: the results of the official audit

The National Audit Office has just published its verdict on the UK government’s open data project. Find out what the report said – and get the indicators here:
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This should be a good week for open government data in the UK. The British government is one of the key drivers in the Open Government Partnership, presently meeting in Brasilia, where it is being lauded for the way it has released a “tsunami of data”.

And yet, according to the National Audit Office, all is not entirely rosy. Read between the lines of its report out today, Implementing Transparency, and you will see a government which has been chucking out tonnes of data, that no-one looks at and without a complete strategy. Oh and it’s cost an awful lot of money.

Crucially, it found the Cabinet office seemed to have no idea of how much the transparency agenda would cost or what it would do:

The Cabinet Office … not yet systematically assessed the costs and benefits of the Government’s specific transparency initiatives

Also that the Cabinet Office hadn’t done enough to make sure departments knew how to release the data, making it less useful:

The Cabinet Office has not yet defined how departments should prepare and disclose data inventories to facilitate wider use

How bad are things? These are the key findings.

The data

The report praises the government for the sheer amount of information that it has released. Data.gov.uk now has 8,300 datasets on it – compared to 5,786 on data.gov (the US version). It has become possibly the biggest government-owned open data site in the world.

At the same time, the government has done most of what it said it would. David Cameron wrote two open letters to heads of departments in May 2010, having just come into power, and in July 2011 – you can read the text here. They called for the releases of key datasets, and the report finds that 23 out of 25 key commitments had been achieved.

And, besides those ‘standard’ datasets it has also published the big ones of the government’s data vaults: such as the sentencing data by court and GP prescribing data by practice. The project is run by the Cabinet Office, under Francis Maude – with HM Treasury taking the lead on spending data releases.

How much does it cost?

The report lifts the veil on how much the government spends on open data – in a fascinating glimpse of the price of doing quite simple things in Whitehall. The amounts would make a lot of developers gasp. These are “additional staff costs of providing standard disclosures of pre-existing data”

The report shows that

• Government departments reckon on spending from £53,000 to £500,000 each year on just providing and publishing open data
data.gov.uk was originally run by the Central Office of Information and received funding of £1.2m in 2010-11 from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. In 2011-12, the project was brought inside the Cabinet Office, and what the report calls “further engagement activity with stakeholders” increased the annual running costs to £2m
• The police crime maps cost £300,000 to set up and have annual running costs of more than £150,000. The National Policing Improvement Agency has budgeted £216,000 in 2011-12 to further develop the site, including linking crime data to police and justice outcomes
• the Department for International Development estimates that to deliver the commitment to provide full information on international development projects with a value of more than £500 by January 2011, it incurred capital costs of £250,000, administrative set-up costs of £156,000 and has ongoing annual running costs of £64,000

Do people care?

Traffic figures do not show a lot of eyes on pages.

None of the departments reported significant spontaneous public demand for the standard dataset releases

While data.gov.uk has had more than 1.75m visits since it was launched in January 2010 (which is pretty much what the Datablog gets in a good month) most of its visitors leave from either the home page or the data page on the website. Page views for transparency data on the Ministry of Justice website represented just 0.02% of the overall site traffic from April to September 2011

This suggests that they are not accessing data during their visit, although it does not take account of other potential access points for the data, for example, linked third party websites or applications

The NAO does point out that

there has been much greater interest in releases related to the operation of public services. The police crime map website has had an estimated 47m visits between February and December 2011. The Department for Education has reported an 84% increase in the use of its comparative data on schools, compared with the same period last year, since it was consolidated in one location and data were made more accessible

We were interested in that 47m figure for the crime maps site and tested it using Nielsen data. There is no guidance on what exactly constitutes ‘visits’ – is it page views or unique users? Our figures show that while the site did get a lot of visitors when it was initially launched in February last year – and had a brief peak during the England riots last year (ironically, the data on the site is all historical, so visitors looking for riot offences would have been disappointed), in December it appeared to only have 47,000 viewers, looking at 364,000 pages.

There’s another example cited too. The Department for Education’s school tool has received on average 45,000 views per month in the first two months since its release in September 2011.

By comparison, the transparency page on the department’s website, which includes links to its standard data sets, received on average 600 views per month in the period from April 2011 to October 2011

Local councils data

One of the most significant commitments by the coalition was the idea that councils should start publishing detailed spending data – with every item over £500. It was supposed to herald a new age of local accountability, with councils publishing information in a format we could all use. As part of putting the report together, the NAO sampled the data releases of 202 councils. It found that the vast majority (89%) had published the data by month – with one doing it very week. They also found that 91% had published the data in a decent format – ie, not pdfs but in excel or as CSV files. 7% of the sample had ancient data, over four months old.

But while there is more local data released than ever before, there are less bodies able to tell us what it means.

While the Government has encouraged greater transparency in local government, it has discontinued many of the existing arrangements for performance reporting. For example, the Government has stopped the National Indicator Set, along with some of its component data collections such as the Place Survey. Existing repositories of comparative data, such as the Audit Commission’s OnePlace website, are no longer supported or updated

It also found “fraud risks” associated with the release of this data. For example, fraudsters can draw on such information in attempting to redirect payments made to legitimate suppliers. The Audit Commission reported councils detected frauds like this worth £7m in 2010-11 – and foiled £20m of fraud attempts in the same period footnote 11

Missed opportunities

The NAO reckons the opening up the governments data vaults would be worth £1.6bn to £6bn a year – and points out that the 2011 autumn statement only saw open data from opening up the Met Office and the Ordnance Survey as worth £49m over 20 years,

a small proportion of the value estimated to be available across the public sector

The report identifies key areas where the government could be doing more. Highlighting the fact that the Department for Education collects and publishes data about schools which could help parents make informed choices, neither the Department of Health nor any of the quangos it funds publish data which help the users of community care for adults And that’s despite the Government’s Open Public Services 2012 White Paper committing to publishing

key data about public services, user satisfaction and the performance of all providers from all sectors

The idea is that be opening up government data, such as Met Office weather data or Land Registry data on house prices, developers could build apps that would generate real cash.

The business case for this release estimated economic benefits of £60m, with additional wider social welfare benefits of between £6m and £27m, over 20 years. This compares with costs of about £11m over that period. Releasing the Met Office weather data sets make up 84% of the total economic benefits.32 We tested whether the business case complied with good practice in central government, and found that for the financial year 2012-13, the estimated revenue losses for the trading funds lie between £5,000 for the Met Office and £600,000 for the Land Registry. Based on revenue currently obtained from statutory and commercial data sales, this suggests that the planned releases represent only a part of the economically valuable data sets held across the four trading funds.

What do you think the report means for UK government open data – and do you agree?

FULL DISCLOSURE: I was interviewed by the NAO as a witness when they compiled this report

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 UK open government data: the results of the official audit

 UK open government data: the results of the official audit

Technology: Technology blog | guardian.co.uk

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