Open data and freedom of information – an example

The mood music around the government’s announcement in mid-July that a commission will report to it in November on how to reform the FoIA has been greeted with almost universal concern and fear. But in the world of data and statistics – that is all the evidence used by policy makers and those in and out of government assessing policy – there is a great opportunity. Making more data open, leads to more accurate and useful data, improves policy making, enhances transparency, boosts the democratic process and reduces compliance costs associated with FoIA. Surely the commission and the government will see this virtuous circle and encourage more openness and greater efficiency from public sector bodies. Or does the government want to hide the basic data from us?  

A perfect example to demonstrate this comes from the US in an article written by Socrata. Admittedly this is a company in the business of making money from opening up government data but, even so, just read the quotes below from one of their clients. It makes sense doesn’t it?

The case study is entitled “ATF Open Data: Improving Public Understanding and Reducing the FOIA Backlog”. ATF is the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, a US government agency, which is now deploying what it calls a full open data portal.

Quotes from Jim Burch, Assistant Director of Public and Governmental Affairs at ATF, include:

“In being one of the first to comply with the White House’s initiative we have the perspective to see how much more we can be doing related to releasing data about our priority mission areas.”

“There is considerable academic and policy-oriented research being conducted on firearms-related violence. By opening our data, ATF will save researchers and analysts from all sides of the policy debate a lot of time by not having to go through the FoIA process to find the data they desire. Plus, the open data portal will save ATF a great deal of time that we would otherwise spend finding the data desired, formatting, and then reviewing spreadsheets one at a time.”

“There is so much misinformation out there about topics the ATF oversees. There are also many questions and concerns surrounding the work ATF does and how it does it. By releasing as much open government data as we legally can, we build public confidence and understanding of what we do.”

By reinforcing the public’s trust in the agency and freeing up time to carry out its important work, the article says, ATF is creating new opportunities to connect with its key stakeholder communities. An open data platform means more of the public’s questions can be answered without having to dedicate valuable “man-hours” to do so. It also offers an opportunity to speak to the public and industry in new ways. For instance, the agency hopes to hear from industry and taxpayers about what data isn’t currently offered but would be useful in an open data format.

ATF also expects to hear from other government and law enforcement agencies about its data and what mash-ups with other data sets could yield. To this end, ATF plans to take its liberated data back to the White House so it can be highlighted and analysed at data jams, hackathons, and other events looking at public safety data.

“There are likely a host of people interested in our data who’ve never thought about accessing it before,” Burch said referring to civic hackers and citizen scientists. “We expect that their use of ATF information could help policy analysts on all sides of the issues, law enforcement, industry experts, and others in ways we haven’t thought of.”

I hope that the National Statistician, ministers, parliamentary committees, campaigners and above all the board of the UK Statistics Authority will be making these points loud and clear (in public) and that the commission “gets it”.

There are some initiatives in the UK as highlighted last March by the then Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude, when he announced 15 local authority data champions. Lets hope the new administration will endorse and turbocharge the initiative.

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