Free Our Data: the blog

A Guardian Technology campaign for free public access to data about the UK and its citizens


So that trading fund report.. where is it? Because David Cameron might get there first

The government commissioned a trading fund report last year. We told you about its terms of reference; and it was delivered (we trust) towards the end of last year.

And since then? Not a peep. The Treasury, which is the lead department looking after the study, told me last week that the report will be published “shortly”.

How long – or short – is “shortly”, I asked? “Shortly,” the spokesman replied. Pieces of string have been more precise.

Now, though, David Cameron may be parking his tanks on the government’s lawns. In a speech on Friday, he noted how American local government and central government organisations make data more easily available:

The second announcement I want to make today is about information. For decades, information, power and control have been monopolised by well meaning public officials. Now, because of the internet and dynamic change in our broader culture, we can consign this top-down model to history.

We’re entering a post-bureaucratic age, where true freedom of information is making possible a new world of people power, responsibility, citizenship, choice and local control. One of the best examples is crime mapping. In cities all over America, police forces regularly publish information about crimes in their area. What type of crime, when it happened, and where.

Anyone can take this information and overlay it on an online map. This gives the public unprecedented information about crimes in their local area. And it gives social entrepreneurs, drugs charities, and a whole host of organisations to pick out hotspots, see what needs doing and transform neighbourhoods.

(You’ll have heard of chicagocrime.org – now renamed as Everyblock Chicago – which is clearly what he’s referring to there.)

And he continues:

But look at our Government at home. It’s still bureaucratic, still top-down and still old-world. It still thinks it knows best and that it should keep all the information. If you don’t believe me, try getting a supposed freedom of information request on important issues like exactly how taxpayers’ money is being spent. It’s next to impossible. This is bad for democratic accountability. And it stifles the sort of social innovation that we see happening in America.

We Conservatives must be different. Indeed, because of our instinctive scepticism of bureaucracies and our belief in human potential, we are different. That’s why we have introduced a House of Commons bill that will require the government to publish – online and accessible to all – every single item of expenditure over £25,000.

It already happens in the US. They call it “Googling Your Tax Dollars”. And it’s already strengthening democratic accountability and promoting government transparency.

Today, I want to set out for the first time how I want to extend this approach to local government. At the moment, local government bodies must provide the public with information about the services they provide, what goes on in council meetings and how councillors have voted on specific issues. Sure enough – you all do this.

But the information isn’t published in a standardised way. Some councils use adverts in newspapers. Others use their own magazines. And others publish the information on their website. Because you all present your information differently, it’s impossible for the public, charities or private companies to effectively collate this data, compare and contrast your performance and hold you to account.

That’s why the Government relies on expensive and bureaucratic schemes to try and hold local government to account. Best Value. Comprehensive Performance Assessments. Comprehensive Area Assessments. We will turn that approach on its head.

We will require local authorities to publish this information – about the services they provide, council meetings and how councillors vote – online and in a standardised format. That way, it can be collected and used by the public and third party groups. And this move will be accompanied by relaxing controls which force councils to pay to publish statutory notices.

OK – this is very interesting. It’s not quite embracing the whole of the Free Our Data concept, but it’s going some way down the road. At least standardising council output is a step forward. But here’s the interesting bit: he thinks it will make a difference to costs.

That way, we will actually reduce local government costs. I don’t expect this to happen overnight. It will take time to implement all the standardisation and bring everything online. But it is so important that it does happen – because it will make you more accountable to your residents.

He’s clearly read The Power Of Information report (or at least his speechwriters have, and given him the brief version; the clue is the mention of mumsnet below):

But the benefits of setting local government data free go far beyond democratic accountability.

By standardising this data, it can be used by anyone’s website, anytime, anyplace to flag up the services you are putting on and get that information to the people who most need it.

Let me give you some examples. Take the young kid looking for something to do at the weekend. By standardising this information online, it will be for companies or charities to build Facebook or Bebo widgets that keep them updated on when the leisure centre or local swimming pool is open or when the youth centre is holding a special night. Or what about the pensioner looking to join an adult learning course? They won’t have to go to individual websites and find out what’s going on.

By standardising this information, it’s possible for the websites like Saga to collate the information from individual councils and make it all available in one place. The same is true for a young parent looking for local crèche facilities. This information revolution will allow websites like mumsnet.com to flag up what is available, where and at what time and save people the bother of trawling individual websites.

Making councils more accountable by giving your residents greater power. But allowing you to get the information out there quickly and effectively.

Setting local information free really is the future.

It’s a start. The Free Our Data campaign is definitively non-political (we just want it done); but there’s a danger for the government of appearing to dither if it sits on this report. David Cameron is only talking about local government data, and not linked to mapped data (though to some extent, service measurement must be linked to location). But starting with more information from local government, free and standardised, for free reuse, is a big step.

Over to the Treasury. Who’s in charge there, then?

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