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U.K. Has $10 Billion Of Public Data, Study Concludes

U.K. needs to plow the valuable public-sector data it collects back into better services and drive economic growth, says study commissioned by the British government.

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An independent study commissioned by the U.K. government to measure its progress in making use of public-sector data concludes headway is being made -- but that the pace needs to pick up.

"We definitely have a lot further to go," the study's author, Stephan Shakespeare, told InformationWeek. "The government's been pretty good at vision. But great ideas around public sector data need a much clearer implementation plan to become reality," he said.

The study outlines recommendations for how the British can best use public sector information to improve government services and unlock economic growth. It could also be raw material for future industries, according to Shakespeare. "If we're clever here, there's no reason why the next Google can't come from the U.K. -- and not America," he said.

[ Some U.K. government data collection is not appreciated. Read U.K. 'Big Brother' Bill Blocked -- For Now. ]

In the meantime, Shakespeare, chairman of the Data Strategy Board, which acts to create maximum value for U.K. business and citizens from data, and CEO of online market research group YouGov, is focusing on how government can use the data better to improve its own services. His analysis, which took six months to create, says the government should be able to take the information it collects from taxpayers, state healthcare patients and citizens in general and turn it into useful applications.

Open data already is helping Brits, he says. For instance, live bus travel data supplied by Transport for London is saving Londoners as much as £58 million ($89 million) year by helping them plan better routes. With luck, that's just the start of Britain properly mastering the data of its own public services. In the future, Shakespeare sees data being plowed into increasing numbers of innovations from self-driving cars and less expensive healthcare to faster government investment in education because top-performing schools are identified more quickly.

But Britain won't get there just by a few "cute apps or mashups," warned Shakespeare. Instead, concerted effort needs to be made: "Britain has a competitive advantage in that we have centralized public services that collect vast amounts of data," he said. The problem is that the value of those data piles remains "largely untapped." If the U.K. plays it right, it can break free of the shackles of a low-growth economy and "rather than being seen as an obstacle," government can become a key driver in a "transformative process" for the country, he said.

The government has been singing the praises of open data for some time, Shakespeare noted. The next step, he said, is a new "national data strategy" that recognizes public sector information is "derived from and paid for by the citizen, and therefore should be made as open as possible to create the maximum value to the nation."

The study recommends two changes in the way government handles the data it collects. First, it needs to release data more quickly, "even if it is imperfect." At the same time, it needs to improve the quality and usability of that data for wider use by publishing it in a format easy to use by individuals, the non-profit sector and business, said Shakespeare. The latter means the government has to invest in data analysis training within its own ranks and investing in better university education on the topic.

The report also said government needs to allay fears that citizen data is unsafe in its hands. To dispel the public's fears -- such as the recent belief that millions of patients' data was being "sold" to foreign firms -- Shakespeare calls for ">"maximum use" of data security technologies. He also suggested higher penalties for misuse of public sector information, including heavier fines and imprisonment in cases of any proven "deliberate and harmful misuse of data."

"I believe that with this in place we can shore up trust in the system, and help alleviate some of the fear that has been holding us back," he said.

The study included business advisory Deloitte's estimate that the direct value of the kind of data Shakespeare is talking about is at least £1.8 billion ($2.8 billion), and could be as much as £6.8 billion ($10.4 billion) if wider social and economic value is factored in.

If it follows the study's recommendations, "the U.K. will be well placed to enjoy the full potential of [public sector information] and [will] cement its world-leading position at the forefront of the open data and transparency agenda," said Costi Perricos, head of public sector analytics at Deloitte.

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