Unlocking the power of information

Unlocking the power of information

Governments typically have a lot of information. They have data on almost everything imaginable.

Yet more often than not it’s inaccessible to the public, or is made available on commercial license terms to companies willing to pay the price.

Take for example Ordnance Survey – the UK’s map maker – which is part of the UK public sector. It holds a vast amount of geospatial data that it only makes available to its commercial partners.

Compare Ordnance Survey with Google Maps, which makes its mapping data available freely on the web. Google Maps has spawned a mass of mash-ups – services which combine Google Maps mapping data with other freely available data to provide innovative services that couldn’t exist without the data on which they are based.

These mash-ups provide value to their end-users that exceed the value of the original data sets by themselves.

But who does Ordnance Survey, or indeed any other public sector data, actually belong to? Maybe I’m being oversimplistic here, but surely data held by public sector bodies is owned, eventually, by the public. There are no shareholders or big pension funds holding stock – the public sector serves the public.

Along these lines, a report published by the UK Cabinet Office called “The Power of Information” caught my eye.

It’s a review of citizen and government-generated information in the UK, and makes some very interesting recommendations that relate to social media and web 2.0 tools.

The main vision of the report is buried on page 20:

that citizens, consumers and government can create, re-use and distribute information in ways that add maximum value.

The authors make some really good recommendations about how governments should engage with the private sector to exploit the data that they hold for the social good:

  • welcomes and engages with users and operators of user-generated sites in pursuit of common social and economic objectives;
  • supplies potential re-users with the public sector information they need, when they need it, in a way that maximises the long-term benefits for all citizens;
  • protects the public interest by preparing citizens for a world of plentiful (and
    sometimes unreliable) information, and helps excluded groups take advantage.

In particular interest is the first recommendation – that the government should engage with existing user-generated sites if they have similar objectives to the government itself.

While this report doesn’t represent government policy, it provides interesting food for thought and I would hope would show a likely future direction for policy.

So far the public sector’s engagement with user-generated private sector websites hasn’t been great.

There is a myriad of opportunities for the public sector to engage with the private sector for social benefit – the challenge for public sector communicators is to understand how fundamentally the communications landscape is changing, and realise what this means for the way they need to achieve their communications goals.

[tags]uk+government, data, mash-ups[/tags]


I work with technology-centric businesses as an interim Chief Operating Officer (COO), consultant and advisor. I created the B3 framework® for scaling technology businesses and I write a newsletter called Build for leaders who are building brilliant companies.