One of the better actions undertaken in the later days of the last UK Labour government was to embrace the open data movement. Following a campaign lead by Nigel Shadbolt and Tim Berners Lee and backed by the Guardian newspaper under the slogan (if I remember right) of ’Free our Data’, the governement agreed in pronciple that much of governement funded data should be placed in teh public domain and be freely reusable. The campain was sparked by plans to chanrge large fees for access to mapping data produced by the publicly owned and funded Ordnance Survey agency.
A new website – data.gov.uk - was set up as an access point for data and to allow developers to post links to tools and apps.
When Labour lost power to the new right wing Conservative- Liberal Democrat Coalition, many feared for the future of the initiative. Yet somewhat surprisingly the new Government embraced the Open Data movement, putting pressure on local governmental bodies to allow free access to their data. Partly this may have been due to a libertarian approach to more open government. However more important may have been research suggesting that there could be a major new market for private enterprises producing apps based on open data.
However such a vision seems to have been misplaced. A cursory examination of the apps page on the data.gov.uk web site suggests a steady stream of new apps. However many of these are of a relatively limited appeal or have mainly a research use. I selected an app at random from the app site and came up with ‘Accident Blackspots in England’ which provides a series of embeddable maps plotting accident rates per thousand registered vehicles in England using 2010 data from The Department of Transport. I am sure this will be of use to planning specialists but is hardly the kind of thing people are going to pay for on an app store. There are also quite a few apps providing access to the league tables of pubic sector performance so beloved previous labour gvernement – e.g school league tables. Once more probably not the most marketable of products.
The one category in which there has been some modest take off is in transport apps. However even here these are very much focused on the heavily poulated urban cities with little of use for more rural areas.
So what has gone wrong – if indeed anything has? Whilst it is very welcome that such data is being openly released and this is a boon for research, the truth is that only a very limited subset of data is going to be of general interest. And even within this subset, the differences in the way data is formatted and presented and the uncertainty of in what form future such data will be released, means that working with such open data is not simple – especially if developers wish to link different data sets. I doubt that a major market will emerge based on open public data. I believe that open data will fuel research and public service development. However apps providing access to services will continue to require public support, if only to clean and standardise data and provide a more advanced data service to app developers, rather than just access to raw data.