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Open Data key to Driving Public Sector Modernisation

Article date: Thu, 08 Sep 2011 10:57 GMT

The modernisation of the public sector lies in openly publishing data say a panel of public sector experts.

Publishing data will allow developers to create new ways for the sector to reach their audience at little cost to the organisations themselves. This is the view of a panel of public sector experts at a recent round table debate held by hosting specialist UKFast.

"The glimmer of hope that I see for the public sector is that more areas seem to be publishing data, such as the police's crime statistics map," says Tom Cheesewright, communications consultant and founder of IO Communications. "Having open data allows people to then develop apps, websites and innovative ways to present data themselves."

"For example, I currently have apps that monitor my calorie intake and diet, as well as one that worked with Google Health to monitor my asthma and use of my inhaler. It would be fantastic for the NHS to embrace this technology so that I could add this information myself to my NHS record rather than Google storing it.

"The NHS would not have to develop the app, they could just release an API to an accessible part of our records and people will use this to develop the apps for themselves."

The panel also said that building partnerships with students and providing work experience placements has proved to be an effective way for the public sector to drive innovation with open data while keeping costs down.

"We have been working with a student from one of the local universities and the insight that he has brought is incredible," said James Brown head of communications, marketing and engagement at Liverpool Community Health NHS Trust. "We also had a student on work experience who developed a whole app for us, in two weeks he had a prototype up and running."

Encouraging developers to use the published data in inventive ways by providing an incentive or competition can bring the public sector organisations into the modern day, without the huge cost associated with creating new technologies.

David Carter, head of Manchester Digital Development Agency explained: "One of the best examples of the benefits of having open data is a competition that we ran not long ago. Two 17 year-old students won the contest having developed a whole mobile app using an API for Greater Manchester bus timetable data which allowed it to give real time information.

"If I had a £30,000 budget to spend I would not put a contract up for tender, I would offer 6 prizes of £5,000 to see what developers can come up with and get some real innovation from them."

This approach has shown its worth across the world with the most notable success stories coming from across the pond.

Carter continued: "The success of this approach can be seen in America with examples like 'Apps for Democracy' which is built around lots of small competitions. How you drive innovation in times of austerity is a real challenge: it is challenging because of the cost limitations but it is also the time when we need innovation most. I think some of these ideas, like the Apps for Democracy, are definitely worth replicating here."

The panel agreed that, despite the many benefits, going down the open data route does raise questions of security and just how much data the public sector should be sharing and how.

Carter said: "I agree that there are security concerns about open data but if we can embrace the idea in principle, we can learn from early schemes and encourage people to release more information over time."

Jonathan Bowers, communications director at host UKFast, pointed to the development of Linux as a great example of collaboration. "Open source operating systems have been improved by a community across the years and tend to force their proprietary rivals to keep developing as well.

In the case of the public sector there is a difference between opening up software systems and making private data available to the masses. Collaboration is definitely a solution but protection of data within these systems will remain important."


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