Although the U.S. Federal government likes to brag about the size and scope of its open data efforts, the biggest government open data repository — as well as, arguably, the easiest to use — actually belongs to the U.K.
First set up as a beta site in January, 2010, data.gov.uk features an easy to use interface (using a tiled layout that is rather reminiscent of Windows 8, actually), as well as tabs for available data, apps (using another innovative type of interface), and so on.
The work is also being supported by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, generally accepted to be a major force behind the World Wide Web. The website runs open-source software, including Drupal and CKAN.
Altogether, there are more than 9,000 datasets available, ranging from traffic statistics to crime figures. Even when first launched, the site featured access to 2500 datasets, more than three times as many as the equivalent U.S. site. “When the U.S. government's Data.gov site launched, critics pointed out that it was filled with relatively non-controversial data sets; plenty of USGS data but no DOJ or military data, for example,” wrote ReadWriteWeb at the time. “The U.K.'s data site, in contrast, includes 22 military data sets at launch, including one called Suicide and Open Verdict Deaths in the U.K. Regular Armed Forces.” The data also uses “uniform resource identifiers” to make it easier to share data.
The site was relaunched in June, 2012, to make it more adaptable to the large numbers of datasets it managed, as well as to improve search and simplify the dataset record page. Earlier this year, a feature that enables people to request data – as well as see the status of those requests, was also launched.
Application developers almost immediately started writing programs that took advantage of the data. “Services like Fix My Street reduce the pain of finding the right telephone number or form to report local problems ranging from dog fouling to broken streetlights,” wrote co-founder Nigel Shadbolt for the Guardian after the site had been up a year. “The site Who's Lobbying helps to keep track of who is meeting which UK government ministers; whilst School-o-Scope makes school performance information useable. Spotlight on Spend shows not just how various councils are spending our money but who is in receipt of it.”
In fact, the U.K. has done such a good job with its site that it is now leading a similar effort to provide open data in governments worldwide. The website also recently won the 2013 Best Design of the Year award by the Design Museum of London. "Although the U.K. government Web portal doesn't look like award-winning aesthetic material at first blush, the site’s beauty lies in its simplicity, which is reflected in the source code all the way up to the user interface," writes TechNews Daily, which compared the U.K. site favorably with its U.S. counterpart. "The U.K. government has even made its source code freely available on programmer site GitHub. Maybe the U.S. Web designers should download it."
Naturally, the site has received some criticism. “We haven’t seen much in the way of new apps and services driven by data.gov.uk data which actually deliver value to people in their day-to-day lives,” blogged Paul Clarke. “Political pressure has been focused on driving out more of the spending data, perhaps at the expense of data that may be practically useful. We can speculate about the political factors at work here: gleeful exposure of the excesses of the last government and the current tensions between central and local government on spending priorities both spring to mind. But it does mean that the genuinely “useful”—the data that describes things in real people’s lives: maps, postcodes, contact information, opening hours, forthcoming events—and the real-time stuff, such as live running transport information, are falling behind. And that’s where the really useful apps and services are going to come from.”
In addition, a conference will be held in June to examine to what degree the U.K. government is meeting its various “digital first” objectives, including data.gov.uk.
Of course, data is just data. What we really need is insight – context applied to the knowledge obtained by creating information from the data. “It is easy to use it to come to the wrong conclusions, to ignore its limitations, to be misled by samples, averages or outliers, to take but a few statistical snares,” warned the BBC when the site was set up. “One of the most important tools for making good use of all this data will be statistical savvy.”
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