Page last updated at 09:45 GMT, Wednesday, 2 July 2008 10:45 UK

Government launches data mash-up

A prison
A forum for prison visitors is one innovative use of data

The UK government has launched a competition to find innovative ways of using the masses of data it collects.

It is hoping to find new uses for public information in the areas of criminal justice, health and education.

The Power of Information Taskforce - headed by cabinet office minister Tom Watson - is offering a 20,000 prize fund for the best ideas.

To help with the task, the government is opening up gigabytes of information from a variety of sources.

Good sense

This includes mapping information from the Ordnance Survey, medical information from the NHS , neighbourhood statistics from the Office for National Statistics and a carbon calculator from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

None of the data will be personal information, the government is keen to stress.

Mr Watson is hoping to attract a wide range of people from "the technology community we already work with, to hard-core coders to adolescents in their bedroom".

He admits that throwing open public data could be a risk but he believes that it will yield results.

"If someone comes up with a great idea we will make a prototype and then hopefully a fully-fledged piece of technology that will make peoples' lives better," he said.

"I strongly believe in co-design and in the digital age it makes sense to work with citizens to make public service better," he added.

To help inspire ideas the team behind the idea has put dozens of examples of innovative ways of reusing public information on its Taskforce wiki.

Graffiti on a street
FixMyStreet offers place to lodge problems such as graffiti

These include a website which maps crimes around the UK, the FixMyStreet website, which allows users to alert others to litter, vandalism and graffiti in their local environment, and the prototype RateMyPrison, which invites those who visit friends and families in jail to comment on the experience.

Technology commentator Bill Thompson was one of the first to see the Show Us a Better Way website, which details the competition.

"It's great to see a government department with enough sense to realise that it doesn't have all the good ideas," he said.

"There are terabytes of expensively accumulated information sitting in databases, but it goes unused and unexploited because of restrictive licenses and lack of awareness," he added.

The government will evaluate the ideas over the course of the summer.

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