At Google Zeitgeist 2011, UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne unveiled ambitious plans regarding the opening up of government data, ostensibly in the name of accountability, but also in part perhaps as a cost-cutting and modernisation exercise.
Osborne said: "Over the next 12 months, we're going to unlock some of the most valuable datasets still locked away in government servers. This is the raw data that will enable you for the first time to analyse the performance of public services, and of competing providers within those public services."
He says this data will enable the public to find answers to questions relating to the performance of local schools (with subject-based breakdowns), local health services (where he couldn't resist noting you could compare the quality of services with private equivalents) and whether the chap across the road who had his car broken into ever got anything out of the police.
According to Osborne, the overriding ambition is for the UK government to "become the world leader in open data and accelerate the data accountability revolution that the internet has made possible," and he cited the benefits as being enormous, and noted that the plans could do for government data what online banking has done for finances.
The promise no doubt has data fiends salivating, but questions remain. There is the issue of exclusion, from a user standpoint (those without web access may be left behind) but also a data one (as Rory Cellan-Jones notes on the BBC, “Provide transparency in one area and people will want it everywhere, including the details of the prime minister's home redecoration projects”). Also, while Osborne has recruited Beth Noveck, who he said “wrote the book, Wiki Government, on how policy making needs to change in the internet age,” and was instrumental in the Obama administration's open data plans, data.gov is now under severe funding pressure and has largely been met with ambivalence from the US public.
Regardless, the process is in motion, and Osborne mentioned a single UK government website is now online in prototype form, alpha.gov.uk, (reported on last week on this site) saying it will “enable us to redesign government services from the bottom up and put the user in charge”.