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Here's what's behind it. Guardian: Coins: A flood of data is on its way ... but we will need to make sense of it.

As recently as 21 April the Treasury was fighting tooth and nail against the release of any data at all from its forecasting tools known as Coins on the basis that it could spark a "disruptive" load of follow-up requests.

Sniffily, the Treasury said Coins contained FOI-exempt data about future spending on defence and security services. Plus, there was no simple way to deliver the data from the multi-dimensional database.

Then the Treasury began distributing all its data from Coins (the combined online information system), and not just that, but using BitTorrent, the method favoured by illicit filesharers trying to get the latest film release.

It's the starkest example of how the attitude in government to ownership of non-personal data – on spending, maps, postcodes – has shifted dramatically in the past five years. The data has gone from being jealously guarded and treated like gold reserves to be hoarded, to being a public asset for free use.

The release today is a delight to scores of computer programmers and would-be entrepreneurs. And, in the coming months, there will be more data, not only from central and local government but also from Transport for London (which is due to release bus and tube timetables on Monday) and other subsidised transport organisations. There is going to be a data deluge, and an industry is ready to exploit it.

For people such as Harry Metcalfe, 27, a web developer, it cannot happen soon enough. Nine months ago he was facing a ruinous lawsuit from Royal Mail. With his colleague, Richard Pope, he was accused of "causing loss" by letting people look up the geographical details (longitude and latitude) of UK postcodes via the pair's site, ernestmarples.com – named after the minister who brought postcodes to Britain.

Unable to afford the cost of a suit, Metcalfe and Pope shuttered the site – though it wasn't hard to calculate that the cost of the lawyers Royal Mail had hired probably exceeded the £4,000 cost of a licence to the official database, PostZon, which provides "lat/long" pairs for each one of the UK's 1.8m postcodes.

Now, those postcodes, and Ordnance Survey maps down to the 1:10,000 scale, can be used for free.

The Labour government released the information for free commercial re-use in April, as it tried to match David Cameron's frequently expressed intention to make government processes more transparent.

Once the data is stuffed into maps, it becomes local, personal, relevant. And, as central and local government are obliged, from January, to publish details of spending over £500, the amount of available data will explode.

Now what is needed is people who can make it make sense for the rest of us; we have the transparency but need lenses to bring out the detail.

"What's different about the Treasury data release, compared to all the other data we've got out of government before, is that these are real tangible data sets about things that have happened," said Metcalfe. "They're all relevant and applicable. These are useful for transparency. But there's a second layer where you start to build commercial applications. Say, for tourist attractions – you can bolt on how to get to a place on its website." He can imagined building businesses around that.

Chris Osborne, a developer at the transport analysis firm ITOworld, said there were still enormous inefficiencies in the way large public organisations did business; he was waiting to build lots of services, using the data released. For instance, London's roads have induction loops that "report" on traffic flows to a central system, which sets the timing of traffic lights on the SCOOT system. But there is no effort to analyse what that means, and how flows change by day.

When the Department of Transport wants to know about traffic flow it sends people out with handheld clickers to monitor passing vehicles. That data are then used to record flow. But that is separate from the CCTV network which watches for accidents – separate again from Capita's congestion charge system.

"Imagine if they made that data open," said Osborne. "Imagine if we could look at that data and analyse it, then feed back our ideas or discoveries. People could vie to suggest the best way to re-route traffic or time SCOOT."

He said Transport for London would have to bow to the desire for data beyond what it released on Monday.

Once we know timetables, won't we want to know where the buses actually are? Won't someone build that into an iPhone app for sale on the App Store? Of course they will. Will TfL cooperate? "It's fun getting data out there, but TfL has a nasty future ahead if they can't move from doer to facilitator," Osborne said.

And if you think that it's all geeks playing with databases, producing nothing of value, Osborne points to hospitals, such as the Mid-Staffordshire trust. There, an independent firm, called Dr Foster, warned that mortality rates were too high. How did it know? Because it got the data from the NHS and did its own analysis. "They had to fight the NHS tooth and nail to get that data," said Osborne. "But then when they did, they could tell them ahead of anyone else what was going wrong."

Not all services built on the release of government data will save lives. But the example of Dr Foster shows that often government organisations are not the right ones to analyse their own data.

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Great site!

I notice that 'public debt management' is almost 10% of government spending too! In fact, outside of pensions and health, it's the biggest blob of spending and has doubled since 2003/4! :blink:

Considering health, pensions and debt have all increased the most, with education getting squeezed, wouldn't that suggest the oldies have done quite well out of this at the expense of the young? They need more health care and pensions, while much of the national debt interest is probably being paid into their pensions.

Edited by Traktion
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That's nothing. Many people spend 50% of their gross income on servicing their mortgages. They seem to get by ... with government help.

Government debt can be considered an intergenerational (from young to relatively wealthy old) transfer of wealth though, which is different from you or I getting a mortgage (although with HPI, it does have a similar effect). If the government borrows to spend now, it is just pulling forward spending from the future.

Essentially, it's spending future taxpayers' money on the present day whims. Worse still, those people lending the government money (buying gilts), will also be demanding interest from future taxpayers too. This also transfers wealth from the average taxpayer to those with capital to lend, risk free (unless the government defaults - which is rare).

Not very moral or fair, is it? Government borrowing is on dubious moral ground to start with, even when they claim to be investing in the future (how can they know it is good investment?). If it's frittered away on welfare, policing, big salaries etc, then it is just consumption - giving a better life for those today, while sending the bill to those who are not yet born.

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  • 429 Brexit, House prices and Summer 2020

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