The coalition’s Programme for Government stated that, as part of the government-wide transparency and open data initiatives: ‘We will require public bodies to publish online the job titles of every member of staff and the salaries and expenses of senior officials paid more than the lowest salary permissible in Pay Band 1 of the Senior Civil Service pay scale’ – namely £58,200.
In a letter to all government departments on 31 May, David Cameron stated that these should be ‘published from September 2010‘. Well, we’re now into October, and said data hasn’t emerged.
I’m not entirely surprised to hear from well-placed sources that whilst the mechanics of releasing such data are fairly straightforward, the practicalities haven’t been. It would be very, very easy indeed to pinpoint exactly how much even relatively modestly-ranked individuals earn – so it’s no surprise that it has caused some, ahem, ripples. (It’s still happening though, as I understand it.)
There’s a bit of a spat at the moment over Conservative (mis)use of crime stats to suggest a doubling or trebling of violent crime. The BBC’s Mark Easton has an excellent summary of the situation, which ultimately boils down to a change in how the numbers were put together:
Before 2002 the decision as to whether an incident was a violent crime had been taken by police. After 2002, officers were obliged to record all incidents as violent crimes if the alleged victim said that is what it was. The aim was to stop police fiddling the figures and to get a better picture of violence. The obvious consequence was to send the raw numbers shooting up.
Statisticians therefore warn that ‘figures before and after that date are not directly comparable’ – however, that doesn’t seem to have stopped either the Tories or, to some extent at least, the Labour government making precisely such comparisons.
Not that that’s any kind of justification, as Tory spokesman Chris Grayling attempted on the Today programme this morning:
I know there’s been a change; I also know that the Home Office has continued to use the same comparators. … As an opposition party, we don’t make the statistics. We can only use what the Home Office publishes.
My point isn’t the party politics of the situation: it’s the reminder of the pitfalls of playing with data. The launch of data.gov.uk is rightly being hailed as a triumph: but it hands highly explosive material to eager amateurs. Some won’t notice the caveats; some won’t understand them; some may actively choose to ignore them. And some will say, ‘what does it matter, we’re all at it.’
If statistics are kept to a small clique of experts, then it’s fine to tinker with the calculations – safe in the knowledge that all the users are expert enough to understand and factor in the changes. But stats aren’t kept to the cliques any more, if ever they really were – and data.gov.uk takes this to a whole new level.
The decision to offer the data was absolutely right in my view: in time, it should be an antidote to this. But it will come under fire at some point: and we need to have a defence ready.
There’s something almost unnerving about the launch of a government website getting so much positive coverage. But today’s been data.gov.uk‘s big day, and everyone seems to agree it’s a jolly good thing. For now.
James Crabtree’s piece for Prospect magazine hails it as ‘a tale of star power, serendipity, vision, persistence and an almost unprecedented convergence of all levels of government’. The New Statesman says it’s ‘a far more radical project than it first appears… a clear break with the closed, data-hugging state of the past.’ We’re all getting quite excitable, aren’t we?
Me? I’m just looking back over posts on this blog last year: this one about the need to make moves on data release (including an excerpt from my resignation letter from ONS), and this one on Tim Berners-Lee’s appointment. I’ll confess, I got something wrong in that latter post; I wrote that it was ‘probably’ a cult-of-celebrity, hands-off appointment. Looks like that wasn’t entirely accurate. Sorry.
This has been a long time coming. Too long. Shamefully long. But there is still good reason to be excited. Amid all the talk about bicycle accidents, you may have missed the news that OPSI is working on simplified T&Cs for reuse of the site’s data:
These terms and conditions have been aligned so that they are interoperable with any Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Licence. The terms and conditions are also machine readable meaning that the licence is presented and coded in such a way that applications and programs can access and understand the terms and conditions too.
This is the first major step towards the adoption of a non-transactional, Creative Commons style approach to licensing the re-use of government information. The new model will replace the existing Click-Use Licence. We are working towards the launch of the new licence model by the end of May 2010.
Don’t overlook the significance of this move. This is government adopting someone else’s standard, for something they have historically claimed as their own. The Click-Use Licence is actually pretty liberal… but it’s scary.
This simple shift will take us from this:
Unless otherwise specified the information on this site is covered by either Crown Copyright, Crown Database Right or has been licensed to the Crown. It is your responsibility to clear any other rights. You are encouraged to use and re-use the information that is available on and through this site freely and flexibly, with only a few conditions…
to this (or something very like it). We, the citizens of the web, know what Creative Commons means: we don’t need to look it up, we won’t need a dictionary, and we won’t need a lawyer. Good things will happen as a direct result.