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British government launches data “innovation” challenge

The modern British government has vast stores of data warehouses at their disposal, which they’re opening up for the first time, hoping some innovative thinking might just hit pay dirt during all that data mining…

The modern British government has vast stores of data warehouses at their disposal, which they’re opening up for the first time, hoping some innovative thinking might just hit pay dirt during all that data mining…

Making use of the vast silos of data the British government has at its disposal is a conundrum much puzzled over in recent times. In fact, I last wrote about government plans for data manipulation back in June 2007:

“In addition to your Workstream aggregating your work stuff and your business activities, you could extend your Workstream into a group share, something that includes the Workstreams of your colleagues.

The nuts & bolts are already there, with the likes of OPML files, which is essentially a way of grouping RSS feeds into one sources. But what if you’re a legal partnership, or an organization that doles out consumer advice? Or you’re an outdoor pursuits events organizer and you need access to OS (Ordnance Survey) data?”

Only this time around, the buzzword is “mashups”, which seems apt, in light of the gravity field that is Web2.0, pulling in the likes of Google, Apple, Adobe and Yahoo! towards RIA (Rich Internet Applications), which themselves are often the byproduct of a Mashup or two.

In simple terms, a Mashup is an web application or service that aggregates the output of several other web applications or services. As one cynical commentator opined, 99% of Mashups use Google Maps.

So the data mining call to arms by the British government is being painted in quite broad strokes:

“The UK government has launched a competition to find innovative ways of using the masses of data it collects … hoping to attract a wide range of people from ‘the technology community we already work with, to hard-core coders to adolescents in their bedroom’.”

In this expansive bid to offer as wide a remit as possible, the scope is truly enormous:

“This includes mapping information from the Ordnance Survey, medical information from the NHS, neighbourhood statistics from the Office for National Statistics and a carbon calculator from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).”

More recently, mainland Britain has been besieged by a variety of incidents, both natural and man-made; such as the Foot & Mouth outbreak (otherwise known as BSE, or bovine spongiform encephalophy), cattle TB (Tuberculosis), the Blue Tongue disease of pigs, summer flooding and the cancer risk from pylons, which I’ll come to shortly.

All of these things have been studied extensively, and there’s a pretty good chance some of this data is part & parcel of what the British government is hoping to open up.

On a lighter note, information about school districts, hospitals, policing, community projects, general health statistics per region, as well as rural & environmental affairs would most likely have a place, too.

Having access to all of this data offers up the prospect of creating some exceptionally sophisticated applications, most of which would be accessible to the British public.

In my mind, the BBC, with their hugely successful websites, should at least be looking into focusing their considerable skills into developing web services from this data which ties into their own products & services. After all, as a publicly funded organization, they would be ideally suited to championing and pushing these services in all of the right and proper directions.

It’s a tantalizing prospect, but it’s one fraught with some notable problems that need to be addressed first.

A question of data security, or the lack thereof?

First of all, let’s begin with four simple words: British government data loss. Small words, I grant you that, but four words with enormous repercussions.

In recent times, the British government have managed to misplace, lose, destroy and variously dispose of a great many items of personal data pertaining to possibly most if not all of the subjects of her majesty’s realm.

So when I begin to think about a government-led initiative to open up these vast stores of data to tethered web applications, a sudden shudder runs up & down my spine.

Apparently, no personal data will be shared. Well, we’ve heard that before!

Data mining — digging in the dirt

I find it interesting that “Ordnance Survey, medical information from the NHS (National Health Service), neighbourhood statistics” should be flung together as they are. I’m reminded of the on-going controversy surrounding pylons, those huge towers of steel which bestride the British countryside, conveying heavy power cables around the land.

There’s been no end of conflicting stories and statistics relating to blood disorders, such as leukemia, popping up in groups of people who live close to these things. In the end, the British government had to make a grudging admission that there was and still is a link between childhood leukemia and pylons.

That was and most probably still is quite an acrimonious debate, so just imagine the furore and political mayhem should anyone uncover something else health related or otherwise.

Doubly so as people would undoubtedly be sharing their new-found discoveries with friends, family and just about everyone and anyone else.

The other possibilities are quite positive; such as people being able to research the location of a prospective home to determine the threat of flooding. That’s assuming the data we’re able to mine is unadulterated and not coloured either red, yellow or blue, depending on which political party holds office at the time.

Paying lip service to all things tech’

There’s the possibility that all this tech’ talk is just that — talk! New Labour is notorious for their control freakery, and if the words of David Davis, former Conservative Shadow Home Affairs spokesperson hold any water at all, the current ruling party:

[New Labour] are mesmerised by new technology. So they go for headlines that make it look as though they are doing something. But in the end, they don’t deliver.”

While I do agree with David Davis, I’d like to think that as an initiative, this is much bigger than any kind of technofilic nonsense, and bigger than any one political party, irrespective of their ambitions.

However, the track record of the British government for rolling out IT projects doesn’t make for over breakfast reading:

“The cost to the taxpayer of abandoned Whitehall computer projects since 2000 has reached almost £2bn.”

And then there’s the EDS system fiasco, too:

“Electronic Data Systems (EDS) has agreed to pay £71.25 million ($122.7 million) to the British government’s tax agency after trouble with an IT system that tracked tax credits,…”

There’s little doubt regarding the utility of such services, but we have to mindful of the woeful record of the British government when it comes to managing our personal data.

Looking further forward, I see this initiative of opening up public data to the web as being an inevitability, something that will happen sooner or later. The positives and the benefits are clear, but it’s the implementation that matters most, or all this data mining will just leave everyone covered in dirt…

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By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

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