Page last updated at 13:53 GMT, Wednesday, 21 October 2009 14:53 UK

Government opens data to public

By Zoe Kleinman
Technology reporter, BBC News

computer print outs
There is a big demand for public data to be more available.

An ambitious website that will open up government data to the public will launch in beta, or pilot, form in December.

Reams of anonymous data about schools, crime and health could all be included. has been developed by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the web, and Professor Nigel Shadbolt at the University of Southampton.

It is designed to be similar to the Obama administration's project, run by Vivek Kundra.

Mr Kundra is Chief Information Officer in the US. The American site, while not yet comprehensive, is already up and running, with improvements fuelled by user feedback.

US citizens can either view the data completely raw, or they can access widgets and other tools provided by the site to create their own charts, maps or snapshots of specific information.

The British cabinet was briefed in September about's ambition to be a one-stop-shop for data collected by the government. At the moment a very early beta version is accessible only by a select group.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has voiced his support, and Professor Shadbolt told the BBC he was hopeful that it would "survive" a change of government.

Only anonymous data will be made available - there will be no personal information included.

Finding patterns

"An accountable government needs evidence-based policies," said Prof Shadbolt. "But traditionally only the people seen fit to understand data have been accountants and MPs."

A public body has a duty to publish unless there is a significant reason not to
Professor Nigel Shadbolt, University of Southampton is built with semantic web technology, which will enable the data it offers to be drawn together into links and threads as the user searches.

"During a typhoid outbreak in the nineteenth century a doctor plotted where outbreaks occurred and traced the disease back to one well," explained Professor Shadbolt. "With we will also be able to look for patterns."

Prof Shadbolt also expects that visitors to will want to make their own mash-ups from the information available.

Data hugging

It may seem unusual for a new government website to receive such fanfare, but what's interesting about is the culture change that it represents, say its creators.

Traditionally authorities foster a "data hugging mentality", which is wrong argues Prof Shadbolt.

"A public body has a duty to publish unless there is a significant reason not to," he said.

He cited the census, the land registry and Ordnance Survey data as among the publicly collected information that should be freely available.

"What you find if you deal with people in government departments is that they hug their database, hold it really close, so that they can build a beautiful website to present it," said Sir Tim Berners-Lee earlier this year.

"I would like to suggest: sure, make a beautiful website, but first, give us - all of us - the unadulterated data. We have to ask for raw data now."

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