Facebook and iPhone apps: The future of UK data

How the data.gov.uk website will trigger an apps revolution

How the data.gov.uk website will trigger an apps revolution

Facebook and Apple's App Store could soon host apps that provide unparalleled insights into public services in the UK, following the government's decision to open up access to its data.

The government yesterday launched data.gov.uk - a Cabinet Office website that aims to link to all non-personal data sets held by Whitehall. The site currently gives access to some 2,800 sets of data from across government departments, ranging from bus punctuality statistics to hospital waiting times.

Treasury minister Stephen Timms described data.gov.uk as the "definitive resource for information", adding it could be used for finding out "if your house is built correctly, if there are bus services nearby… even how many fish there are in the English Channel".

The information linked to by data.gov.uk can be freely reused by the public, and the government is hoping new apps and services will be developed using the data.

At least 10 apps based on data.gov.uk data sets have been built to date, and are linked to from the site itself, including an app that gives information on house prices across the country and another that reveals crime levels within Northern Ireland.

At the launch of the site in London yesterday, more concepts for apps built around the data were unveiled, using government information to provide new pictures of everything from the quality of local health services to the cheapest places for commuters to live.

bus routes London

A visualisation of data showing bus stops and bus routes in central London, with brighter lights representing the busiest routes. The visualisation by web services company ITO shows how apps can represent data in a more interesting and accessible way
(Image credit: ITO)

4iP, a body funded by Channel 4 to promote public service media, is hoping to stimulate app development by offering £100,000 to the two organisations that produce the best idea for a government data app.

Timms claimed data.gov.uk and the apps it generates will help the government maintain service levels against a backdrop of dwindling budgets.

"We need to be able to provide better services in government and to do it more efficiently than in the past, and we think that this exercise is going to help us," he said.

While the apps that have been developed using data.gov.uk information to date are only available from their creators' websites, in the future they could also be made available through app stores and social networking sites.

Director of public policy for Facebook, Richard Allan, predicted apps created using data.gov.uk data sets could eventually become popular on Apple's App Store and Facebook - thanks to its data being reusable for both commercial and non-commercial projects.

"FarmVille [a gaming app for Facebook] has 75 million users - a Rural Payment Agency data app on farm subsidies probably wouldn't get the same level of users.

"But someone is going to crack that... and get [apps] to people who normally would express no interest in government data," he said at yesterday's launch.

The next big hurdle for the site will be...

...getting data released from local authorities, police forces and health trust onto public websites and Sir Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the world wide web who has helped oversee data.gov.uk's development, said discussions are taking place with the Department of Communities and Local Government about how to achieve this.

Meanwhile Berners-Lee predicts that within a year "most data sets" within central government will be available through the site.

He told the launch he was surprised how easy it has been to get backing for data.gov.uk after meeting Prime Minister Gordon Brown last year to discuss opening up public data.

"Gordon Brown asked me: 'How should the UK make the best use of the data on the internet?' and I replied: 'The government should just put all of its data on it'. And he said: 'let's do it'."

Professor Nigel Shadbolt, who has been overseeing the site's development with Berners-Lee since June last year, said in future widgets could be offered through the data.gov.uk site to make it as easy to create an app as "creating a Google Map mash-up".

The data.gov.uk site is also aiming to make developers lives' easier in future by tagging government data sets with semantic tags, which categorise what type of information is held within the set and how it relates to other information in the databases. For instance, a tag could provide a standardised way of categorising how big a pothole is and whether it is a risk to bikes or cars.

Providing common tags, which can be understood by computer software, also helps to get around problems where different organisations have used different terms for describing the same information.

Shadbolt said only a few tens of data sets linked to through data.gov.uk have been tagged so far, but the hope is that at some point all data.gov.uk information would be "linked data".