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21 January 2010

The death of the data-hugging state?

How Tim Berners-Lee freed government data

By George Eaton

In the week that it was reported the government has wasted £26bn on botched IT projects, it’s reassuring at least to see one website that looks like money well spent.

Officially launched today, data.gov.uk is Gordon Brown’s answer to Barack Obama’s Data.gov, and was created with the help of the web pioneer Tim Berners-Lee. The site provides web users with access to public-sector data ranging from statistics on abandoned vehicles to the months of life lost due to alcohol use.

It’s a far more radical project than it first appears. As Prospect‘s James Crabtree argues, the site marks a clear break with the closed, data-hugging state of the past. With the Tories promising to publish online every item of government spending over £25,000, it was essential for ministers to make data more accessible to the public.

In the most exciting development, the data has also been made available to commercial users, meaning we can expect thousands of new apps to be created. You can see a list of the 19 created so far here. There’s also an ideas section listing proposals for future data research. Suggestions so far include “i-Need a Pee” — a GPRS public toilet finder — and “job discrimination in private and public sector” — a league table of organisations that have faced employment tribunals for discrimination.

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Sites like Data.gov have the potential to transform the relationship between citizen and state. We can expect the electorate, newly armed with data, to subject state spending to unprecedented scrutiny. In the digital age, there is nowhere for failing ministers to hide.

 

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