In this second post on open data issues I'm looking at what the early steps towards releasing more government data are achieving.
In the previous post I noted that the aims seem to be encouraging 'armchair auditing', increasing trust in the political process, supporting the economy and helping to drive up standards in public services.
It is worth noting that it will be difficult to accurately judge if any of these are being achieved.
To take the example of spending scrutiny, it might be possible to question some spending decisions but it is impossible to quantify the decisions that were scaled back or abandoned because of a feeling they would not look good when made public. The signs of success would be things that didn't happen.
As Steph Gray wrote in this thoughtful post on the subject, these cultural changes which might be brought about by open data are difficult to assess.
"Broadly-speaking, government is a risk-averse organisation in many ways, sometimes to the extent that on occasion it has preferred ineffectiveness to perceived impropriety, waste to uncertainty.
"The coming wave of transparency could transform this in a hugely positive way, using open data on costs, opportunities and performance to become a much more creative, cost-effective and agile institution, mindful of the money it spends and the results it achieves, and ensuring individuals are accountable for their work.
"But it might make things worse, frightening senior managers into becoming more guarded, taking fewer 'risks' with even small amounts of money, and focusing on the process to the detriment of the outcome. It may also make public service less attractive not only for those with something to hide, but for effective people who don't want to spend their time fending off misinterpretations of their decisions and personal value for money in the media."
Similarly on the issue of trust, while it might be possible to conduct polling around whether or not people welcome more transparency (is anyone going to say they don't?), identifying the precise impact of more transparency seems pretty difficult.
If there is any general increase in trust in the political system (the Hansard Society measures this annually), other factors such as the new government and the media no longer covering the expenses issue to such an extent are likely to be just as important, if not more so.
The fact that it is difficult to judge the progress being made does not mean it is not worth proceeding however. In a democratic society, increased transparency is a useful end in itself.
How is data being used now?
So having looked at what impact ministers want their policies to have, is it possible to make any initial assessments about what impact they are having in practice?
Looking, for example, at the Coins data on public spending there is some useful information which can be extracted from it, but it is hugely complicated to understand and needs a lot of explaining.
This is not (yet) armchair auditing, but scrutiny by technical and financial experts – which is useful nonetheless but not quite what was suggested as the intended outcome.
So perhaps there will be more 'armchair auditing', but at second remove. Experts and the media might still get to play their traditional role of intermediating between government and public (on this subject, these posts by Tony Hirst and Tim Davies are worth reading).
And looking at some of the apps now available, they currently seem to fall into three groups:
- Location-based services like Look4Nurseries and UKPostBox.
- Data visualisers like Housing and Planning statistics - interactive tool or UK House Prices.
- Comparison apps like the Compare Care Homes UK Database.
So, initially at least, the data is not driving too much 'armchair auditing' but does seem to be successful in creating the beginnings of an ecosystem which has the potential to achieve the goal of boosting the economy.
And there are also the efficiency gains to be had for the public, for example from finding the nearest 'Boris Bike' hire point through one of the apps making use of open data.
In the first post in this series I raised the issue of whether too much was being expected of open data.
And while it is still very early days, it will be difficult to answer the questions about whether it has been worthwhile (which will inevitably follow a couple of years from now) if it is also hard to measure whether the declared goals have been achieved.
It would perhaps have been more sensible to keep in mind the excellent political advice about always under-promising and over-delivering (although no one ever seems able to actually do that in reality). This is especially so if it might be hard to prove you have kept your promises.
But still, there are ways in which open data could and should prompt a much more dramatic and visible change for the better in the process of governance. I'll discuss that in the final post in this series tomorrow.
In the mean time, the video below is worth watching for its points about how the release of better quality (linked) data could spur the creation of more useful services.