Open data must do more for businesses, report finds

Online businesses and developers are being hindered in making open-data products and services due to poor quality information being presented, according to the UK Public Accounts Committee

Poor-quality public data is hindering businesses trying to build open-data products and services, according to an influential group of MPs.

Houses of Parliament
Open data must be easier to use, MPs have said.

The UK government has released large amounts of raw public data without ensuring the information can be used by businesses or the public, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said in a report on Wednesday.

"It is simply not good enough to dump large quantities of raw data into the public domain," said committee chair Margaret Hodge MP. "It must be accessible, relevant and easy for us all to understand."

One of the objectives for the government's transparency agenda is to help businesses develop products and services based on public information, such as those firms developing online products and smartphone apps.

Incomplete data

However, the release of incomplete datasets such as patchy price and performance information for adult social care, plus factors such as inconsistent reporting across local authorities, mean that the data quality does not help developers.

Incomplete datasets also arise as different service providers are subject to different levels of transparency. For example, spending per pupil is not made available by academy schools, which therefore cannot be compared on a like-for-like basis with maintained schools. Providers should not hide behind commercial confidentiality when asked to provide data, said the committee.

The main UK open data portal, data.gov.uk, has functionality and usability problems, the committee added.

"Four out of five people who visit [data.gov.uk] leave it immediately without accessing links to data," said the report. "Simply dumping data without appropriate interpretation can be of limited use and frustrating."

Cost benefits of open data

In addition to data problems, it's not clear whether the benefits of providing open data to firms and the public outweigh the costs to the taxpayer, said the committee.

"Departments have not monitored the costs of releasing data, and little is known about the benefits, making it difficult to prioritise, or achieve value for money from, the government's transparency programme," said the report.

The Cabinet Office, which co-ordinates government open data work, said that the UK was "leading the world" on public data.

"We agree that open data allows citizens to hold governments to account, drives improvements in public services by informing choice, and provides a feedstock for innovation and growth," Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said in a statement. "We also agree that everyone should have access to open data — that's exactly why we set out last month how the government will ensure open data is more accessible and more usable, including overhauling the data.gov.uk site."

The government updated the data.gov.uk site in June, altering the navigation system, and adding a library section with space for documentation on datasets.