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NAO: Gov open data policy disorganised and costly

Calls for cost-benefit analysis

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The government’s open-data policy has no proven benefits and could actually be costing taxpayers more than it’s worth.

That’s the message from a National Audit Office report that tells Whitehall it’s time for some proper cost analysis on the policy of unloading vast data sets on the public.

In the absence of such analysis there’s no clear way to measure whether the open-data policy is actually delivering on its purpated goals of increased accountability, delivering imporved services and of economic growth the NAO said.

The agency reportImplementing Transparency – reveals a policy that’s all over the map. There's no idea of the costs entailed and no consistency in implementation.

In some cases the act of opening data is costing the taxpayer money in increased staff costs.

Estimated staff costs of providing standard information disclosures of pre-existing data range between £53,000 and £500,000, while a police crime map costs £300,000 to build as staff need to repack the data as well as more than £150,000 to run.

The release of public weather service data had minimal cost, however, the auditors' office noted.

The crime map website had 47 million visits between February and December 2011, while the Department of Education has reported an 84 per cent increase in the use of its comparative schools data since that information became available.

Less popular with the public, meanwhile, is the information that departments release on any spending which is in excess of £25,000.

Meanwhile, holes exist in areas the public could find helpful. There’s nothing from the Department of Health or related bodies on data that could help people compare costs and performance of home care for adults, for example; meanwhile the government has scrapped frameworks on performance of local government services.

The NAO warned the government even in areas where the costs of releasing data are relatively modest: “They would be more substantial if additional information were collected to secure purposeful, standardised information to fill the gaps noted...," it said. "Pursuit of transparency objectives is therefore likely to increase cost pressures.

“While the Cabinet Office has identified six types of potential benefits from open data, it is not yet using this framework to evaluate the success and value for money of its various transparency initiatives,” the NAO said.

In the Budget this spring, the government announced an Open Data Institute that it promised would “innovate, exploit and research open data opportunities with business and academia" but the NAO said the range and scope of this new group’s work isn’t clear.

The UK government has bit hard on the policy of open data, releasing information previously frozen inside departments and local authorities to be viewed and used by the public and business.

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude boasted in March that Britain is leading the world by making ever more data freely available. Central government and other public bodies have so far released 5,400 data sets with 23 of 25 departments committing to release information.

The NAO report, though, is an uncomfortable reality check on Maude and the free-data-at-all-costs ideologists leading the government’s digital agenda. ®

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