British government bets big on open data for growth

Just like the rest of the Western world, Britain’s government is under serious pressure to revive the country’s stalled economy. And at no point is there pressure greater than today, as the Chancellor, George Osborne, unveils his latest initiatives to get things going as part of his Autumn Statement — the regular update on the state of the nation’s finances.

But unlike other countries, the U.K. is not just talking about creating jobs or encouraging infrastructural projects: it’s also taking a gamble on data.

This involves opening up a whole range of new government-owned data sets to the public, as well as encouraging greater sharing of information to try and boost the amount of innovation and development in Britain around this material. In addition, there’s going to be a new organization led in part by Sir Tim Berners-Lee — known as the Open Data Institute — to help foster this process and lead development.

Osborne is expected to say the program is an attempt to “innovative, exploit and research open data opportunities with business and academia”, and over the last couple of days, news of the plans have started to leak out to try and drum up enthusiasm.

Here’s basically what is going live, soon:

  • Increased health data

    A raft of new initiatives including: better links between data sets for individual patients; new data release services to push information about healthcare from the NHS — Britain’s enormous public health system — to researchers and industry.

  • Increased transport data

    Free availability of a range of real-time data covering the running of the rail network and bus infrastructure, plus regular data releases on local highway and road congestion

  • Access to weather data

    Britain’s weather forecasting unit, the Met Office, will open up more of its public weather service data for free, in open formats, in what the government says will be “the largest volume of high quality weather data and information made available by a national meteorological organisation anywhere in the world”.

  • More housing data

    The national Land Registry, which keeps track of sales and land ownership, will release monthly data on residential home sales, including prices paid.

  • All of this is significant, and is positioned as a source for app developers, software companies and technology businesses. The hope is clearly that the data will allow them to build products and services that can feed back into the economy and promote growth. And it’s a welcome change from a government keen to promote tech startups, but which had previously said that data was a “low priority”.

    As Information Age reports, the Open Data Institute is actually an old plan — one originally proposed by the last government — that was first scrapped, and is now being repackaged as shiny and new.

    The institute will be directed by leading open data academics Professor Nigel Shadbolt and web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

    The scheme recalls the Institute for Web Science, an academic research centre proposed by former prime minister Gordon Brown in March 2010, which was also due to be run by Shadbolt and Berners-Lee.
    “We want to build on the outstanding work Sir Tim and Nigel Shadbolt have put in to ‘making public data public’,” said Brown at the time.

    However, the current government scrapped the £30 million plan in May 2010, saying it was a “low priority”.

    I spoke with Professor Shadbolt, one of the world’s leading open data campaigners, who told me that it was a significant move.

    “This is about keeping the U.K. at the leading edge of the open data movement,” he said. “The ODI will be about ensuring a flourishing environment of open data entrepreneurs. In some cases we will have to secure the research to provide the tools, skills and methods to support the creation of new value using open government data.”

    “In other situations it will be about supporting new and innovative companies that are seeking to exploit open data… There is a substantial training program to provide a cohort of individuals with open data skills.”

    The end result, of course, will be when we see what will happen with this data in Britain. But it will be exciting to see what happens — and whether we will see other governments follow suit.

    Photograph of Tim Berners-Lee used under Creative Commons license courtesy of Flickr user Tanaka; Nigel Shadbolt used under Creative Commons license courtesy of Elon University