The government's new Open Data User Group will really help the public sector make the most of a bad situation, writes one of the group's members
Data experts across business, civil society, academia and local government came together in July at London's Tech City for the first ever meeting of the government's Open Data User Group (ODUG). They were appointed with the sole aim to advise what public sector data will have the greatest economic impact and social benefits for the UK and should therefore be made 'open' to the public.
The ODUG is a significant move in the right direction for the government and comes at a time when the public sector really needs better support to help them make the best of what has become a challenging situation. Bringing together government and business in this way is crucial – the concept behind the ODUG is really rather new and when combined with the Open Data Institute and Data Strategy Board, will be revolutionary.
On a day-to-day level, the group will be the focal point for user community feedback on plans to release further data. It will also act as a main point of contact for the user community to report back on successes, or otherwise, of existing data releases.
So, what does this mean for the public sector and public in general? In terms of direct impact, it's two-fold:
1. The cost to the public sector bodies of managing and releasing this data needs careful consideration and support – examining data sets and releases will help manage these costs.
2. The benefits from more rapid, direct engagement with citizens – for example, giving them the ability to report anti-social behaviour or a broken streetlight from their smartphone.
In general, this transparency offers more accountability, better involvement and engagement as well as real cost savings – similar to the scrutiny on government spending via the release of COINS data in 2010.
And, by combining the expertise and views of a wide range of members, the ODUG will be able to consider the impact of future data releases in a number of ways including:
• Supporting startups and new businesses (like those in TechCity)
• Helping existing businesses to enhance their offerings and services
• Ensuring that public sector bodies can manage the responsibilities associated with handling public data
• Creating and developing wider initiatives to increase transparency and enhance access to information
• Giving a voice to those outside of the normal 'activist' circles and industry bodies.
In addition, putting the data that developers need at their fingertips will help remove barriers to entry for businesses and create innovative new services for the public. Sure, any release of data will have an impact on budgets, but the ODUG will be concerned with the business case of these, weighing up potential economic and non-economic gains.
It has been estimated that open data will be worth at least six billion pounds to the UK economy and in terms of new businesses, new opportunities and cost savings for the public sector and the taxpayer, open data is simply too good to ignore.
The next couple of months will see the ODUG put together their 'modus operandi' to focus on where they can make the biggest impact. For me, this will be about engaging with the communities we represent and identifying the 'quick wins' that we can make available in the next 12 months, while ensuring that we work on those datasets that may take longer to release.
Still, this isn't something that will happen overnight, but Francis Maude's involvement and the Cabinet Office's support is a huge indicator that open data is 'big' and that this government is committed to it, putting the structures in place to ensure that it continues.
This is exactly why I'm convinced that each and every member is involved in the group not for their own personal agenda, but with the intention to make a positive impact on public services. Of course, the proof will be in the pudding, and I'd appeal to the community to judge us on results, not just on the caliber and experience of the ODUG members.