When the first data.gov.uk platform was launched, it was a great example of the ‘rewired state’ spirit: pioneering the rapid development of a new digital part of government using open source code, and developed through fluid collaboration between government staff, academics, open source developers, and open data activists from outside government. But essentially, the first data.gov.uk was bolted onto the existing machinery of government: a data outpost scraping together details of datasets from across departments, and acting as the broker providing the world with information on where to access that data. And it is fair to say data.gov.uk was designed by data-geeks, for data-geeks.
Tom Steinberg has argued that data portals need not appeal to the masses , and that most people will access government data through apps, but there are thousands of citizens who want direct access to data, and it is vital that data portals don’t exclude those unfamiliar with the design metaphors of source and software repositories. That’s why it is great to see a redesign of data.gov.uk that takes steps to simplify the user experience for anyone seeking out data, whether as a techie, or not.
The most interesting changes to data.gov.uk though are more subtle than the cleaner navigation and unexpected (but refreshing) green colour scheme. Behind the scenes Antonio Acuna and his team have been overhauling the admin system where data records are managed, with some important implications. Firstly, the site includes a clear hierarchy of publishing organisations (over 700 of them) and somewhere in each hierarchy there is a named contact to be found. That means that when you’re looking at any dataset it’s now easier to find out who you can contact to ask questions about it, or, if the data doesn’t tell you what you want, the new data.gov.uk lets you exercise your Right to Information (and hopefully soon Right to Data) and points you to how you can submit a Freedom of Information request.
Whilst at first most of these enquiries will go off to the lead person in each publishing organisation who updates their records ondata.gov.uk, the site allows contact details to be set at the dataset level, moving towards the idea of data catalogues not as a firewall sitting between government and citizens, but as the starting point of a conversation between data owners/data stewards and citizens with an interest in the data. Using data to generate conversation, and more citizen-state collaboration, is one of the key ideas in the 5 stars for open data engagement , drafted at this year’s UKGovCamp.
The addition of a Library section with space for detailed documentation on datasets, including space to share the PDF handbooks that often accompany complex datasets and that share lots of the context that can’t be reduced down into neat meta-data, is a valuable addition too. I hope we’ll see a lot more of the ‘social life’ of the datasets that government holds becoming apparent on the new site over time – highlighting that not only can data be used to tell stories, but that there is a story behind each dataset too.
Open data portals have a hard balance to strike – between providing ‘raw’ datasets and disintermediating data, separating data from the analysis and presentation layers government often fixes on top – and becoming new intermediaries, giving citizens and developers the tools they need to effectively access data. Data portals take a range of approaches, and most are still a long way from striking the perfect balance. But the re-launched data.gov.uk lays some important foundations for a continued focus on user needs, and making sure citizens get the data they need, and, in the future, access to all the tools and resources that can help them make sense of it, whether those tools come from government or not.