The government is to create a modern data sharing infrastructure centred on using open data, rather than simply adding to the 20,000-plus data sets it has already published.
Downing Street plans to do this by creating APIs that allow different departments and sectors to tap into open data, rather than make it available through the release of bulk amounts of data.
Cabinet Office minster Matt Hancock explained how the government will approach the next steps for open data use.
“With every other aspect of government, we need data services built around the needs of users, not the internal logic of Whitehall. This starts with the dog-fooding principle [of] using your own product,” he said in a speech at the Open Data Institute (ODI) summit.
“In short, one of the best ways to make sure our open data is of high quality is to use it in our day-to-day operations. So we’ll be looking much more closely at how data flows into government, how it’s collected, how it links together, who uses it and how it’s made available for wider use.”
Hancock explained that the government will look to build on the National Information Infrastructure, which was developed with the ODI to identify and maintain an inventory of beneficial government data which will be made available beyond the confines of Whitehall.
An API ecosystem will be core to building on this foundation, facilitating data sharing across the public sector, rather than requiring departments and third-parties to request data from different departments and copy it into their own records.
“Our core data sets must talk to each other, built on high quality registers instead of lists of data replicated in each government department,” said Hancock.
Spreading open data
Alongside the API ecosystem, Hancock highlighted areas that the government will need to address to bring the open data plans to fruition.
A data-driven government needs to be championed by policymakers and operational managers, something that the previous government was trying to achieve with the Data Science Accelerator that aimed to embed data expertise across Whitehall.
Building on this, Hancock said that the government will create a programme of lunchtime code clubs designed to educate civil servants in putting open data to use.
“This isn’t about turning everyone into a data scientist. It’s about making sure that departments are intelligent consumers of their own data,” he said, although the minster did not address how Whitehall will incentivise civil servants to swap their deli sandwiches for data sifting.
The government will also create a Data Leaders network in Whitehall to review data sharing legislation and ensure that policies meet the goal of an open, data-driven government.
Hancock went on to note the need to keep data assets secure and compliant with appropriate governance standards.
Hancock said this will be achieved by taking a collaborative approach to data policy and governance, which will be put at the heart of the third Open Government Partnership National Action Plan aimed at establishing collaborative cross-government policymaking and accountability.
The final part of the government’s open data plan is the creation of a steering group of what Hancock called “digital and data visionaries”.
This group will include Sir Nigel Shadbolt from the ODI, Mustafa Sulyman from Google DeepMind, Fran Bennett from Mastadon C, Xavier Rolet from the London Stock Exchange, Mark Thompson from Judge Business School, and Dame Fiona Caldicott, former chairwoman of the National Information Governance Board for Health and Social Care.
Hancock explained that the goal of the steering group is to see that the work the government is carrying out pushes the boundaries of open data use.
Data to drive digital
The Government Digital Service (GDS) is the department responsible for spearheading the digital-by-default ambitions of the government and its predecessor.
However, Hancock warned that the success of GDS and digital transformation across Whitehall will require a strong foundation on data.
“Government data is no longer a forgotten filing cabinet locked away in some dusty corner of Whitehall. It’s raw material, infinite possibility, waiting to be unleashed. No longer just a record of what’s happened, but a map of what might be,” the minster added.
“I shouldn’t call it government data, because there is no such thing as government data. It belongs to all of us. Open data is a way of giving it back.”
Hancock claimed that the amount of data already released by the government covers almost £200bn of public spending, so the government’s ambitions for being driven by open data do not seem unattainable.
If fact it would be a case of building on the investments the government has already made in open data, including £1.5m in public sector open data initiatives. And the government has already been identified by the ODI as the world leader in open data transparency.
However, the recent spate of departures from GDS may be a spanner in the works to driving open data and digital transformation across government.
But, as Richard Sargeant, director of performance and delivery at GDS, said earlier this year, the government’s digital strategy has a “learn by doing” approach, meaning it is likely push for a data-savvy Whitehall regardless of whether the final outcomes end up being failures or successes.