Peter Hoskin

Shining a light into government

Shining a light into government
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I wouldn't normally start the day by linking to a public sector website – but this one is actually worth your time.  It's the launch version of data.gov.uk, created with the help of Tim Berners-Lee among others, which aims to present statistics about government performance in a straightforward, easy-to-access way.  You'll get a sense of what's there by rummaging around this page: there's stuff on benefits, deaths, immigration, traffic, and so on.

Ok, so it's not perfect.  You'd hardly call the current crop of data exhaustive, and you could complain that much of it was available previously if you knew where to look for it.  But this is the earliest public incarnation of this site, and we're promised that it is "very much a work in progress" – so things will probably improve.

But, even as it stands, data.gov.uk is testament to some sort of acceptance that things have to be more open, and that the internet is the perfect medium for this.  As Neil O'Brien and I wrote in a piece for the magazine a couple of weeks ago, the hyperscrutiny of the digital age has so much potential – to cut costs, to improve services, to strengthen democracy – even if enabling it will be much more difficult than most politicians think.   

The real test – of both this brand of accountability, and of the political will behind it – will be whether we start seeing some really substantive, innovative datasets up on the Web.  George Osborne, for instance, has promised to publish online every item of government spending over £25,000.  If everyone, from the Taxpayers' Alliance to a thousand citizen bloggers, could easily get their hands on that information then the game would be changed for good.  Watch this digital space.

P.S. Prospect's James Crabtree has written an article on Tim Berners-Lee's involvement in all this, here.