Councils make open data unusable, says Francis Maude

Some local government councils in the UK have “deliberately” limited the accessibility of data they are obliged to publish under the Freedom of Information Act, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said at the Conservative Party conference yesterday.

"I’m sorry to say that some councils spend time and money deliberately making data unusable to anyone else,” he said.

He pledged to make all information released through the FOI Act “machine readable”, so that independent websites or applications can retrieve it automatically.  

"All data released through FOI must be in a reusable and machine readable format, available to everyone and able to be exploited for social and commercial purposes,” Maude said.

This week, London’s Hammersmith & Fulham Council signed up to SpotlightOnSpend, a service that allows councils to publish their spending data online for the sake of transparency.

Earlier this year, SpotlightOnSpend was criticised by open data advocates because, among other reasons, it did not make raw data available in a machine readable format. This, they say, limits its utility to the public, an argument now supported by Maude.

Since then, SpotlightOnSpend has added the raw data to its service. However, in a statement announcing his adoption of the service, Hammersmith & Fulham Council’s cabinet minister for community engagement emphasised the value of the formatted, “human readable” version of the data.

“Information not only needs to be transparent and accessible, but also intelligible to the general public so that it is meaningful and easily understood,” said Harry Fibbs. “It’s useless to simply have raw data. It needs to be presented in a format people can follow.”

In July, the head of the UK government’s open data initiative Richard Sterling said that he thought the public may be drawing conclusions that "weren’t quite valid” from the data it had published, due to the format in which is presented. He added it may be necessary to provide tools to make it easier to analyse and visualise the data. 

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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