We Can Show Them A Better Way

When Cabinet Office Minister Tom Watson launched his ‘Power of Information Task Force’ in March he was applauded by campaigners for open source software and  free access to public sector information and easier availability, but there was a general concern that it wasn’t clear what the Task Force could actually do.

Since then there have been a few speeches, some ideas have been floated for general consideration, like the recently announced Treasury review of how Ordnance Survey and other trading funds operate, and there’s been an interesting investigaion into how crime mapping might operate.

But now they are putting their money where their mouth is – or, to be more precise, our money where their mouth is since they are a public body – with an online competition to find the best ideas for ways to reuse governnment data.

Show Us a Better Way’ has £20,000 to offer to people who come up with innovative ways to use a wide variety of data sources, including a massive amount of medical data from NHS Choices and neighbourhood information from the Office of National Statistics.

They’ve also added in a carbon footprint calculator and a complete feed of notices from the London Gazette, the official source of details of company changes, honours and awards and unclaimed premium bond numbers.

And of course there’s the best mapping data in the world, courtesy of the Ordnance Survey.

The data available is as good as the government can make it, and there are literally terabytes of it behind the various feeds and APIs.  All they are looking for are ideas as to how to mix and combine it all to do something useful, a public-service mashup.

It’s a very interesting idea, and follows the recent expansion of the data sources available from the BBC through the Backstage project which Ian Forrester announced at last month’s Mashed08.

The downside is that although they’ve got access to many of these sources they can’t be used freely yet, as there are still many restrictions on how we can exploit the data the government collects on our behalf. But if enough good ideas emerge then it will help put pressure on the various data holders to offer more permissive license, and we may eventually see a general presumption that public data is freely available to the public, as The Guardian has been arguing for a while now.

If you feel like entering, the competition can be found at ‘www.showusabetterway.com’ and runs until the end of September. But don’t expect to get rich: the £20K is for a prize fund to ‘develop the winning ideas to the next level’, but if you read the FAQs it makes it clear that it’s not about giving people money. And nor is it about taking their ideas and running with them – the site is clear that ideas remain with their inventors, they just want to help.

For me one of the most inspiring things about the project is the strapline in the ‘About this site’ section, where it  says

public data is your data

It certainly is, although it hasn’t been treated that way for quite a while.

8 Replies to “We Can Show Them A Better Way”

  1. The funding is a good start, but the data itself is fairly weak. Everything there bar the schools data has been available for a while, and lots of it involves signing contracts and service level agreements. I wanted to use the NHS Web Services for hospitals.iamnear.net but frankly, it was less legally troublesome to just scrape it off the web myself. So I did.

  2. This is probably a laudable effort at extending access to information we’ve already paid for – time will tell. It should also go one stage further.

    Given Mr Watson’s love for all things Web 2.0 I feel that any govt IT project should have a public beta test. For example, take the current expansion of our surveillance society. Let’s test the ID Card and its associated database on all the govt employees that will have access to it.

    All details of MPs and other officials’ digital lives should be publicly searchable. That includes their credit card usage, phone calls, surfing history, hotel bookings, cash dispenser records, restaurant bills, banking transactions (especially the cash deposits), car usage, medical records and so on. After all, if they can look at ours why can’t we look at theirs? As the tired old cliché says if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear.

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