Opening the door to government data

Guardian News and Media's director of technology Mike Bracken talks about Data.gov.uk and the build-up to the launch of the World Government Data API
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor on

Mike Bracken, technology director for Guardian News and Media, has been involved with Data.gov.uk since its early stages. The government project, which makes raw public data available for open reuse, has already spawned mashups on house prices and train times, among other applications.

The January launch event for the Data.gov.uk project, which has World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee as one of its backers, was held at The Guardian's headquarters in London.

The newspaper group is also involved in making several types of data available for use and reuse as part of its vision for non-newsprint media.

Bracken met up with ZDNet UK to talk about Data.gov.uk, and other projects in which the Guardian group is involved, that aim to make more public data available for any developer to work with.

Q: How did Guardian News and Media (GNM) become involved in the Data.gov.uk project?
A: Well, let's take it back a bit. Gordon Brown met up with Tim Berners-Lee over a meal. They talked, and very early on Gordon Brown asked what the government could do to free up data.

To do this quickly needed a bunch of non-government developers to make a community and to create a value chain. If people didn't know what was there, they wouldn't be able to use the data.

GNM was really a catalyst to bring together the nascent data development community in the UK and the then relatively secretive people at Data.gov.uk. We seeded the community, which has around 2,500 developers now.

So how did you personally become involved in the project?
I was one of a small number of people in MySociety [open-source democracy website] — I played a small part in helping them set up. Before that I was one of a small number of people hanging round a tech scheme called UK Citizens Online Democracy, which created policy documents for government. It's a pretty small pond, that.

Does GNM host any of the Data.gov.uk data?
Data.gov.uk is a repository that points to UK government data sets — it's effectively a portal, although I don't really like the word. GNM has a project called World Government Data, which is a metalayer that points to government data sets, in the UK, the US [and globally].

World Government Data is a repository of metadata that allows anyone to find, play with and manipulate government data from around the world, including [UK] Data.gov.uk and [US] Data.gov. It lets people compose their own datasets, while we [GNM] provide the tools.

It's a virtuous circle — people take the data, play with it and put it back [into the public domain] so that other people can use it.

We're building up to a full launch of the [World Government Data] API, to allow people to take the data and play with it in a programmatic way. We're talking to wider government organisations about hosting data for them. GNM provides a trusted platform between a customer base that is global, and arcane repositories which are local.

Our focus is on bringing developers on a journey into government data, but we're also looking at data from third-sector agencies [charities], and economic data. Our job is not to own the data, just to make it useable, and accessible so people can use it.

Does the same philosophy apply to the data GNM does own?
We've got some of our own data out there — we've always been a publisher of data. The very first edition of the Manchester Guardian published a table of education data.

We've made an app called Chalkboards, which allows people to take data from football matches, and compare the stats — passes, tackles and shots. You can illustrate the data visually. The app starts to use datasets in a way we haven't used them before.

The difference is that the end user is using the data to further analyse and discuss issues, and on occasion disagree with the journalist. It's crucial that the user can take data and put it on their own site. It's a good example of how data can alter journalism and publishing.

Chalkboards has found the biggest market in China, where it has enormous popularity.

Does GNM own that data?
Chalkboards combines [different bits of] data from [sports statistics database] Opta. A dev team in Norway plus N2 Marketing collaborated to create the app.

If people can take and use that data for free, how can GNM make money from that data?
It's early days, but there are a number of emergent business models. Opta is happy that their data and services are syndicated globally — for them it's marketing.

First of all, GNM is a digital business. For GNM it's a reach proposition, as we can reach an audience we wouldn't normally reach. It's a way to create a new audience for GNM content. There is also a conceivable sponsorship model for Chalkboards. As we syndicate out to devices, there is clearly an advertising model.

The key thing is to have that innovative capacity within business, and that's where GNM is a hub of innovation. We don't make money from some services, but they are all potential revenue streams. Given that newspapers are in long-term decline, I don't think anyone can criticise us for looking at new revenue streams.

Editorial standards