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UK to make FoI data machine readable

New law will make information more accessible

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The government is to change the law so that all data released under the Freedom of Information Act will be fully accessible to computers.

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude told the Conservative party conference in Birmingham that the Freedom of Information Act will be amended so that all data released through FoI must be in a reusable and machine readable format.

The change in the law will mean that FoI data is "available to everyone and able to be exploited for social and commercial purposes", he said on 3 October 2010.

This means using formats such as .csv, an open spreadsheet format, or .xls, which is used by Microsoft's Excel – but not the portable document format. PDFs can only be opened as visual files, with software such as spreadsheets unable to extract the actual information.

The government's transparency agenda, Maude said, has already ensured that information including the Treasury's Coins spending database, a list of all quango chiefs and civil servants earning more than £150,000 and government tenders which exceed £10,000 has been published.

"We want to go much further," he told delegates. "Thousands of commercial and social entrepreneurs have been frustrated by their inability to obtain and reuse datasets. I'm sorry to say that some councils spend time and money deliberately making data unusable to anyone else."

Research by the Guardian's Data blog has found that only 66 of the 326 councils in England have so far published spending above £500 online, and more than a third have done so only using PDFs – including Europe's largest local authority, Birmingham City Council. They are required to do so by January.

On cutting government spending, Maude said that the Cabinet Office has been renegotiating contracts with its biggest suppliers by dealing with them as a single customer, "instead letting them play one part of government off against another".

He said that contract renegotiations were not yet complete, but that so far the government had saved several hundred million pounds.

A freeze on IT spending, along with advertising, consultants and offices, was confirmed by Maude. Any exceptions have to be referred to him for approval.

This article was originally published at Kable.

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