It’s our data, make it accessible
The Guardian, Friday 19 June 2009
By Heather Brooke
It was rather like trying to do a Google search and getting your answers delivered as a truckload of blacked-out telephone directories. The information age may have arrived some decades ago but from the format of yesterday’s publication of MPs’ expenses, Parliament is so last century.
The 700,000 pages of scanned images put online in pdf were described by Sir Stuart Bell as a ‘great achievement’ for Parliament. And I suppose it is if you’re used to inscribing your words on animal skins.
If we truly aim to be an informed electorate then we need quick, direct access to the vast troves of information held not just within Parliament but all other public bodies.
We have moved on from static documents. For information to be useful it should be dynamic, searchable, and accessible. We book our own holidays not through a travel agent but though search engines where we can compare and find the best value flights, hotels and car rentals. We no longer call up librarians with our questions but type them into Google or post them on Twitter. We can compare prices between shops and even between countries. We no longer have to rely on traditional media for our news but can graze for it across the entire globe via the internet and the postings of millions of citizen journalists.
People are used to having great swathes of information at their fingertips, yet parliament still believes it can control both the collection of information and its presentation. Officials want to lock-down documents so they can never be altered without specific written consent. You look at most government websites and the information is micro-managed to an appalling degree. There are a few exceptions – the Electoral Commission website springs to mind – but for the most part, bureaucrats and politicians are loath to allow people direct access to the raw data.
It is this loathing that lies behind officials’ reliance on the pdf document. It is a format that is fixed and static. It cannot be analysed. So we cannot, without a great deal of effort, see how many MPs are funnelling expenses into certain companies or overall food bill. This is why the Guardian set up its own crowd-sourced spreadsheet so the data could be unlocked and made useful. What that means is more taxpayers spending more of their own time and money to fix a system built badly under the instruction of the Commons officials. A better solution would have been to throw open the data from the very beginning and elicit volunteers to help in the publication.
There are no shortage of interested and skilled volunteers. Just look at the number who have helped on the Guardian’s expense website and http://whattheyclaimed.com/. Tom Steinberg and the developers at MySociety have been banging on Parliament’s door for a long time. They built the websites TheyWorkForYou and PublicWhip among others. But it’s always a struggle to get the public sector to release information. I can vouch for that.
It shouldn’t be like this. This is our data. It belongs to us. We paid for it and it was collected in our name. Isn’t it time we had access to it?
Tags: The Guardian