Today sees the launch of data.gov.uk. Over the last few months I’ve had some privileged peaks behind the scenes, and I’m very excited to see it all now live. The front paragraphs on the site put it well:

Advised by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt and others, government are opening up data for reuse. This site seeks to give a way into the wealth of government data and is under constant development. We want to work with you to make it better.

We’re very aware that there are more people like you outside of government who have the skills and abilities to make wonderful things out of public data. These are our first steps in building a collaborative relationship with you.

A Short Long Journey

It feels like a long journey since October (“Set our Data Free and Create a (Digital) Economy“), but it reality it has only been a dozen weeks and some snow. In between-times, civil servants and some very civil technologists have been hard at work making thousands of sets of data accessible. I’ve just glanced back at my email folder – there are a good few thousand messages that have gone backwards and forwards between a large community of developers and the folks in Whitehall who have been making things happen. Amazing stuff.

It Matters Because…

I tuned into Radio 4′s Today program – normally bastion of great Radio – and was very disappointed to hear an odd piece which implied civil servants were battling to avoid releasing the data, and that the ordinance survey data might not get published. While I am sure that there are some who are, it’s the very opposite of what I have seen.

Why does data.gov.uk matter? It matters because:

  • Open data encourages transparency in government. I see that as a very-good-thing.
  • The datasets will stimulate innovation in services – from mapping accident black spots to finding cross-service opportunities.
  • Data.gov.uk will be a nursery for a new generation of semantic-web software developers. If the community isn’t where the next Google comes from (it might well be!), it will at least nurture a pool of developers who will bring great data processing and visualisation skills to business.
  • Supporting a digital Britain. The initiative provides a first step in helping to UK catch up and over take countries like Australia and others who are a long way down the track. Knowledge-based services are a big part of the future.

Just the Start

There is a better piece on the BBC website (it might be by Rory Cellan-Jones), talking with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who has been helping to drive the initiative:

…from traffic statistics to crime figures, for private or commercial use. The target is to kickstart a new wave of services that find novel ways to make use of the information.

The official press release is on the COI site:

“Making public data available for re-use is about increasing accountability and transparency and letting people create new, innovative ways of using it. Government data should be a public resource.  By releasing it, we can unlock new ideas for delivering public services, help communities and society work better, and let talented entrepreneurs and engineers create new businesses and services. ” Sir Tim Berners-Lee

Conversations are flowing on Twitter under the #opendata hashtag. Sir Tim and Nigel Shadbolt have also written a longer piece in The Guardian and the data.gov.uk site has a list of apps that have been written using the data already. I suspect we’ll see many more in the coming months.

[a couple of additions, post launch event]

There is now a set of resources listed in a blog post on the data.gov.uk site, including some background on SPARQL (the query language used to access the data) and how to list and search the datasets. The site itself is built using open source software – the main stay of what we work with here – under the action plan announced by Tom Watson last year: Open Source, Open Standards and Re–Use: Government Action Plan. There is a brilliant long post by Paul Clarke on his blog, which provides some good context and outlines the next set of challenges

It was interesting to read the US perspectives on the announcement. The US have their own initiative and there is some controversy about who is furthest ahead! The OPSI posted explaining the licensing terms for the data and how these relate to creative commons in the UK. All in all, a great achievement for Professor Shadbolt and Sir Tim.