A common frustration with London’s subsidised cycle-hire scheme is that it can be insanely hard to find a bike in rush hour, or a vacant docking slot at the end of a ride. Savvy cyclists tap an icon on their smartphones that shows them where to look. The widget, devised by Little Fluffy Toys, covers 32 cities in countries from America to Australia, and generates lucrative business for the London-based software developer. Its popularity shows how individuals and businesses can both benefit from the ready supply of official data.
The state has long been the biggest generator, collector and user of data, in Britain as in most countries. As the information revolution reshapes the business landscape, governments have responded by returning data to the hands of the people who paid for it. Britain publishes more official statistics than any country except America — although others are catching up fast, says Nigel Shadbolt of the University of Southampton. Ministers from more than 50 countries will meet in Brazil later this month to discuss data developments.
Different governments have different motives for opening their digital treasure troves. America began its open-data initiative to illuminate how the state was spending the money it raised through taxation. India promotes openness in order to fight corruption. In Britain, transparency is mainly intended to spur public-sector reform and boost business innovation. So far it seems better at the second than the first.
The drive to publish state-collected information in Britain began under the previous Labour government, which set performance targets that hospitals, schools and so forth were supposed to meet. But the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition that took power in May 2010 opened the floodgates, convinced that more data would help devolve power to people in all sorts of ways, small and big.
Take transport in the capital again. Enterprising folk have long generated a steady income selling popular apps about trains and the like to passengers. But they have had to “scrape” official websites for their data; now, they are mostly issued with direct feeds on request, and this raises the quality of their service as well as lowering the cost of providing it. Transport for London, which runs the capital’s buses and underground trains, made its live transport data freely available in 2011. It was motivated by self-interest: during a disruption, well-informed passengers clear the system more quickly than those who have failed to identify alternative routes. And giving away the data saves the expense of employing in-house developers.
Other organisations are thriving on free data, too. Two years ago, the Ordnance Survey, the state map maker, had to earn at least half of its income from selling the information it collected. Now it no longer charges. This has been a boon to innovators such as Access Advisr in Nottingham, which allows people who have trouble getting around to report whether certain transport routes really are negotiable.
There are big prizes on offer. Late last year, David Cameron, the prime minister, said he intended to publish anonymised data collected by the National Health Service, in the hope that Britain’s life-sciences companies could use the uniquely comprehensive records to develop ground-breaking new treatments. (Persuading patients to take part may be tricky, given the NHS’s record of botching the introduction of a national computer system as well as various security lapses in which government departments have lost confidential personal information.)
Not waving but drowning
The big idea behind liberating state data — under both the coalition and its New Labour predecessor — is to raise standards in the public sector by giving the public an informed choice of providers. To that end, the government will release figures this month allowing people to identify which family doctors are most trusted by their patients. Information on the results of high-, low- and middle-achieving pupils at different schools, and maps showing the crimes committed in specific neighbourhoods are also available now. But here’s the rub.
While people are happy to pay for a smartphone app that makes their lives easier in the short run, many do not seek out the data that would let them choose the best hospital or school, or hold the government to account in other ways. A study by the King’s Fund, a think-tank, suggests that those patients who exercised their right to choose a hospital based their decisions on past experience and their doctor’s advice. Parents tend to apply to local state schools rather than good but distant ones because popular schools take the pupils who live nearest. Information on how crime varies by post code has yet to prompt competitive demands for better policing, though the election of police commissioners in November could change this.
The information revolution is changing the way businesses operate, allowing — indeed forcing — them to trawl through billions of nuggets of data to hone their offerings. In principle, it could do the same for the state. But pumping out data is not enough to transform Britain’s public services — unless its entrepreneurs can find a way of selling the notion to punters. — (c) 2012 The Economist
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