Author: Julian Champkin
Last week we learned that Jimmy Wales , the founder of Wikipedia, is to act as an unpaid adviser to the UK Government on opening up data to the public. His history is involving people in creating public content; so the appointment is to be welcomed. The more data we all can see, the more open our government, and the better-served is democracy.
But data is not always enough on its own. The government already releases great quantities of data about its spending, for example; every item of local government spending over £500, for example, is available to the public by law; go towww.data.gov.uk to find it. Health and education data are there as well. The equivalent site for US government data is www.data.gov . The problem is, though, that what you will usually find at these sites are huge spreadsheets of numbers – pounds or dollars spent, or numbers of people in various categories, and it is not remotely obvious what the numbers mean or what story they tell.
For data to have meaning it must be interpreted, and that is the rub. BBC Radio Four’s Today programme on Tuesday this week had an item on the issue of open data which included an interview with Hans Rosling. Rosling of course is the Swede and statistician who made statistics a hit on prime time television with his Joy of Stats series last year. You can read a Significance interview with him here. BBC Radio Four’s interviewer asked him if there can be such a thing as too much data; you can hear his answer here .
Rosling’s point was that making data openly available breaks the monopoly of the state. He checks train delays on his commute into Stockholm each morning, using an app which taps in to live data on which trains are running late. The app has improved his life; but, he says, governments would not have thought of writing the app; it is the availability of data that makes it possible, but some genius then wrote the app to use that data – interpreted it – to the public, in other words. ‘It is the value added to the data which makes it useful to the public, not the data itself.
There are of course issues of privacy. In Sweden and Norway , how much every citizen earns is public knowledge, because the government publishes everyone’s tax returns. ‘Britain is a bit old-fashioned not to do that’ he says. But an individual’s health records, he says, should not be publicly available. ‘It is no-one’s business but my own what the results of my HIV test turn out to be.’
How to decide what should be public? ‘Judge each case on its merits’ he says. Can you have too much data? ‘Can you have too many books? No. you just have to know what you have.’