Governments open their books

A quiet revolution in how we access government data is helping us do everything from catch buses to save money for the NHS. Simon Wilson investigates.

What is open data?

"Open data is data that can be freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and share alike," according to the Open Definition, a set of principles created by key players in the open data movement.

For data to be open, there are three main elements. 'Availability and access' means that it must be freely available in a convenient and modifiable form. 'Reuse and redistribution' states that it must be provided under terms that allow reuse and mixing with other datasets.

'Universal participation' prohibits discriminatory terms, such as restrictions on the use of the data for commercial purposes.

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What sort of data is this?

Mostly data collected and held by the government or other state authorities that could potentially be of use to individuals, organisations and businesses.

This encompasses everything from crime rates to train timetables; details of government spending to copies of contracts; infection rates in hospitals to water quality analysis to power consumption patterns.

Why should data be open?

"Data is the raw material of the 21st century a resource that gets more plentiful every day," say Tim Berners-Lee and Nigel Shadbolt, the founders of the Open Data Institute (ODI). So the principle is not just that open data is good in itself, or that it strengthens democratic accountability and transparency though these are noble aims.

The wider belief is that open data can allow businesses and social entrepreneurs to spot opportunities. "When the data has been released, applications have quickly followed," as Berners-Lee and Shadbolt put it.

What are these applications?

One of the most obvious uses is in the plethora of popular websites and smartphone apps that allow travellers to see when their bus is coming, find a parking space, or evade roadworks. Another well-known site is, which allows citizens to log problems with their councils.

And one of the ODI's great success stories has been backing a start-up agency, Mastodon C, which analysed NHS prescribing data (along with Open Health Care UK and Ben Goldacre, the campaigning doctor) and identified £200m of NHS savings after looking at prescribing patterns for statins.

For an overview of some of the ways in which open data is currently being used in Britain, see the article "What did open data ever do for us?" on the government's open data site,

Is open data new?

In a sense, no. There are many past examples of open data leading to advances in knowledge. Berners-Lee and Shadbolt give the example of Florence Nightingale, who revolutionised nursing in the mid-19th century after using open data to show that most soldiers in the Crimean War died of disease rather from their wounds.

John Snow, a London obstetrician, combined data on cholera deaths with the location of water wells and made the connection between contaminated water and outbreaks of the disease. This led to the building of the capital's sewage system and hugely improved public health.

And in the 1940s, the sociologist Robert King Merton identified the importance of open scientific data, claiming each researcher must contribute their discoveries to the "common pot" in order to allow knowledge to move forward.

So why is open data now a big idea?

The idea of open data might be rooted in scientific practice developed over centuries, but information technologies, including the internet, have opened radical possibilities for how open data can be analysed, processed and exploited.

In recent years, many governments have begun to make more information available as open data, a development that open data advocates are trying to capitalise on.

The ODI has recently announced the creation of 13 affiliates, or 'nodes' in countries from the US to Dubai, aimed at supporting companies, universities and non-governmental organisations in projects that make use of open data.

What's Britain doing?

The UK was one of the earliest countries to set up an official government site for open data and is recognised as one of the global leaders in the field.

At the Open Government Partnership, an international conference held in London this autumn, Britain committed to creating an open database of beneficial ownership of companies, which is expected to help tackle tax evasion and money laundering.

This could produce some interesting results.An existing analysis of open data on company directors found that about 350 hold more than 100 directorships each, with a few holding up to 1,000 a very high number for anyone hoping to fulfil the duties of a director.

Is open data going global?

There are a range of initiatives promoting the use of open data worldwide, such as Africa Open Data and OpenData Latinoamrica. Many projects are prompted by concerns about corruption, health, or environmental issues.

In Brazil has created a cross-border map of environmental degradation in the Amazon by analysing data from the National Institute for Space Research.

In Kenya, the Data Dredger project, funded by USAID, the US development agency, tracks among other things the exodus of Kenya-trained doctors to other countries and how counterfeit drugs are hindering the fight against malaria.In Afghanistan and Mexico similar projects are mapping attacks on journalists.