Earlier this week, the prime minister boasted of the success of the so-called 'silicon roundabout' in East London, and the huge growth of technology companies in the area. My hope is that Mr Cameron takes a leaf out of the entrepreneur's handbook, and that the government starts making better use of the vast data it controls.
In January 2010, the government launched data.gov.uk. A website dedicated to making public data public, and giving greater transparency to the workings of all government departments. Since then, over 7,700 data sets have been made available, with more being added each month.
The range of datasets available is diverse to say the least. To take two examples, I was quickly able to determine that between June 2009 and September 2011, only one councillor at Hampshire County Council was able to attend all of his meetings. I also learnt that unfair dismissal cases in Britain have risen an astonishing 49% between 2005 and 2010. You see what I mean?
However, what astonishes me more than the array of data, is the apparent lack of attention it receives, at least from the departments, agencies, and councils that produce it. I think this a terrible oversight, and presents a huge opportunity for big data use. If there is one thing that every company, from global leaders to bedroom start-ups, knows, is that you never ignore data.
Already, some private sector businesses are taking the freely available data, and using it to turn a profit. The Oxford Consultants for Social Inclusion (OCSI) have developed their Numberhood app, to allow people to quickly access and compare a number of key Government performance indicators in their area. A company called Seme4 partnered with the University of Southampton to produce this excellent interactive map of the UK, showing everything from crime statistics to bus stops.
These are both really great examples of what can be done with the data, a bit of creative thinking and some skilful development. But there are thousands, literally thousands, more sets of data available, most of them with virtually no added value being attached. Even tools that you would imagine to be quite easy are strangely absent. Trying to find a comprehensive map of police stations in the UK? You're out of luck. Want to see how traffic calming measures in your town actually affect accident rates? No dice.
To my way of thinking, the biggest question when you look at these examples, is why aren't the government doing it themselves? Don't get me wrong, I completely understand that there are a host of critical issues taking up ministers' time, particularly in today's social and economic climate. And I am well aware that most government agencies are resource-starved, and that suggesting a whole spread of new projects would be considered borderline insanity. But here's the thing: perhaps if a bit more time and money was invested into big data analysis, wouldn't the long term benefit to both the general public, and the efficiency of government be much greater than the cost? I think so.