Free Our Data: the blog

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

David Cameron gives speech suggesting “setting data free”

David Cameron has given a keynote speech which continues to edge the Conservative party towards something that might look like the glimmer of the beginnings of the outline of the rough shape of a manifesto.

Part of it was to do with what he called “Setting data free”. See what you make of it.

In Britain today, there are over 100,000 public bodies producing a huge amount of information.

This ranges from school league tables to train timetables; from health outcomes to public sector job vacancies. Most of this information is kept locked up by the state. And what is published is mostly released in formats that mean the information can’t be searched or used with other applications, like online maps. his stands in the way of accountability.


… what about patient outcomes in the NHS? Some of the most important information you’ll ever need to know, how long your Dad will survive if he gets cancer, your chances of a good life if you have a stroke, all this is out of your hands.

Now, again, imagine if this information was in your hands. You’d be able to compare your local hospital with others, and do something about it if it wasn’t good enough. Choose another hospital. Voice your complaint to a patient group. Make change happen.

All this data which would help people in this country hold the powerful to account – it’s all locked away in some vault. And it’s only getting worse.

We’re going to set this data free. In the first year of the next Conservative Government, we will find the most useful information in twenty different areas ranging from information about the NHS to information about schools and road traffic and publish it so people can use it.

This information will be published proactively and regularly – and in a standardised format so that it can be ‘mashed up’ and interacted with.

What’s more, because there is no complete list that can tell us exactly what data the government collects, we will create a new ‘right to data’ so that further datasets can be requested by the public.

By harnessing the wisdom of the crowd, we can find out what information individuals think will be important in holding the state to account.

And to avoid bureaucrats blocking these requests, we will introduce a rule that any request will be successful unless it can be proved that it would lead to overwhelming costs or demonstrable personal privacy or national security concerns.

If we are serious about helping people exert more power over the state, we need to give them the information to do it. And as part of that process, we will review the role of the Information Commissioner to make sure that it is designed to maximise political accountability in our country.

The suggestion that councils will be obliged to publish data in a common format is one that Cameron has made before; and it’s something that Adrian Short’s mashthestate has been pushing (and successfully) without any political party.

The idea though of the “right to data” and the assumption that data should be available is interesting. Allied to Sir Tim Berners-Lee suggesting ways to get the data out there, it looks like all the political parties think that making data free – in the sense of untrammelled, if not yet in the sense of not-charged – is an idea whose time has come.

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