Statistics and Open Data: Harvesting unused knowledge, empowering citizens and improving public services - Public Administration Committee Contents

5  Moving faster to make a reality of open data

106. This chapter examines what might be needed to help the Government achieve all three of its main aspirations for open data. It asks why there is not more open government data, why it is not more accessible and why it cannot be released faster.

Public service skills in dealing with data

107. We heard some evidence of a shortage of data skills among public servants. Sir Nigel Shadbolt acknowledged that the Government had made "substantive investment in the area of big data," but that "much of this is in the area of hardware [...] the human skills you need to drive this are essential." Neither the public nor the private sectors had people with enough of these skills, and more needed to be done to take advantage of "the inherent strength we have to exploit this emerging data market".[149]

108. Sir Nigel said that within the Civil Service there is "a real challenge" which went beyond "the well tried notion that it is largely PPE graduates".[150] Nevertheless the numbers required to improve matters were not seen as overwhelming; one or two role models within Departments were "producing extraordinarily high-quality data [...] Four or five people across 15 Departments of State would make a huge difference".[151]

109. FlyingBinary, a company with a lot of experience of working with government Departments, said that "data literacy is very low across the Civil Service."[152] Action is needed, they told us, to "educate and inform the Civil Service at large and create a culture change which affects behaviour."[153] If senior officials give the impression of not being interested in seeing evidence, using it to improve policy and outcomes, and learning from departmental experience, the open data movement was seen as being unlikely to take off. Heather Savory detailed some of these cultural issues. For instance she said civil servants sometimes perceive the risks in releases of open data, "which is natural because they have been brought up in a world where they are [...] protective of the public."[154]

110. Mr Hurd and Mr Fallon outlined the actions being taken by Government to increase data capability and capacity for both private and public sectors. In October 2013 the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills published "Seizing the Data Opportunity: a strategy for UK data capability". The strategy contains a range of actions for Government, industry and academia around three key areas:

·  building human capital - developing a strong skills base in the UK

·  developing the UK's data infrastructure, software and research

·  facilitating data sharing and linking

111. Measures being taken to develop skills within Government include work by the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Sir Mark Walport, and scientists and engineers across Government to "increase the use made of data and analytics in analysing and tackling big policy challenges."[155] The Government Innovation Group of the Cabinet Office is "leading new work on open policy making which will consider new policy tools and techniques, including the effective use of data in policy and service delivery."[156]

The role of statisticians

112. The role of statisticians was seen by several witnesses as crucial to success on open data. ODI told us: "Statisticians are vitally important for opening up data, and those engaged in open data have a lot to learn from them. But [statisticians'] outputs are currently focused on people rather than programs."[157] To encourage outsiders to make full use of statistical material, ODI said that "Re-users need access to anonymised versions of the underlying data."[158] Sir Andrew Dilnot, Chair of the UK Statistics Authority, said that the Authority "expects all data underlying official statistics to be published", but cautioned that this should happen only "where this is practicable and does not put confidentiality at risk."[159] He stressed the need for statisticians to ensure quality and provide context in data, warning that "Data dumping" can be inimical to transparency and good government. It is the job of official statisticians, and a requirement of the National Statistics Code of Practice, to produce official statistics which are understandable and readily accessible, with objective and impartial commentary."[160]

113. Money was cited as a barrier to progress on open data; the UK Statistical Authority said that "Across the Government Statistical Service the work on transparency and opening up data is typically being accommodated within existing resources and this may limit the pace of progress."[161] Jil Matheson said that, despite the constraints, the GSS was already "one of the primary sources of data that appears on"[162]

114. Full Fact suggested that Government statisticians could contribute more to open data work: "Official statistics should be open data and more than open data. With the capabilities of our expert official statisticians behind them, they should lead the field. As yet, they do not."[163] Statisticians, according to Full Fact:

    should not be gatekeepers who determine what statistics we can see and what we can do with them. They must be enablers, priding themselves on openness and how their work, including as the Committee has emphasised, their communication work, empowers others to do whatever it is they want to do.[164]

115. To support this, Full Fact suggested a one-star to five-star scheme for assessing the reusability of open statistics, building on Sir Tim Berners-Lee's scheme for assessing the reusability of open data generally.[165] One-star statistics would for instance include basic metadata, such as the geographical scope of statistics and whether or not financial time series are inflation-adjusted. Five-star statistics would provide much more, including context via links to other relevant data.

116. Many civil and public servants lack the skills to interpret data properly and some civil servants do not seem to share the Government's desire for openness. While bearing fully in mind the needs of national security and personal privacy, civil servants need to be much more aware of the presumption to publish. They should stop being gatekeepers, guarding government data, and become enablers encouraging its wider use; key to this will be the development of a wider understanding of data issues among policy staff.

117. Government statisticians have the skills to do much more with government data, for example, through producing new series of statistics. But statisticians have chosen to adopt a low profile when they need to be active in producing new data sets and collaborating with their colleagues in other Civil Service professions to bring more sense and usability to open data initiatives. Government statisticians should become champions of open data.

118. We recommend above that the Government adopt the "five-star" system along the lines proposed by Involve, for open data engagement. A second "five-star" rating system, developed by Full Fact for assessing the usability of government statistics, would support the efforts of statisticians to play a more active role in open data. This system should also be adopted by the Cabinet Office in assessing departmental progress on open data.

119. The Government needs to move fast to encourage training of more data scientists. We therefore recommend that the Government should bring forward a practical timetable for training data scientists, with target numbers, to be announced before the end of July 2014. The Government should also include data skills and open data awareness sessions in the training of the policy profession in the Civil Service.

149   Q100 Back

150   As above Back

151   As above Back

152   FlyingBinary Ltd (OD 18) para 7 Back

153   As above  Back

154   Q51 Back

155   Nick Hurd MP and Rt Hon Michael Fallon MP (OD 28) Back

156   As above Back

157   Open Data Institute (OD 09) Back

158   Open Data Institute (OD 09) Back

159   UK Statistics Authority (OD 19) Back

160   As above Back

161   As above Back

162   Q211 Back

163   Full Fact (OD 11) Back

164   As above Back

165   As above Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2014
Prepared 17 March 2014