The best data opens itself on UK Gov’s Performance Platform

This is a guest post by Francis Irving (@frabcus), CEO of ScraperWiki, who has made several of the world’s first civic websites such as TheyWorkForYou and WhatDoTheyKnow.

This is the third in a series of posts about the UK Government’s Performance Platform. Part 1 introduced why the platform is exciting, and part 2 described how it worked inside.

The best data opens itself. No need to make Freedom of Information requests to pry the information out of the state. No need to build massive directories as checklists for civil servants to track what they’re releasing. Instead, the data is just there. The code just opens it up naturally as part of what it does. One of the unspoken exciting things about the UK Government’s Performance Platform is that it is releasing a whole bunch of open data.

Here are two examples.

Pet shop licences

1. Licensing performance

This is a graph (with data underneath, of course!) of pet shop licenses applied for over time in various counties. It’s part of a larger system which will eventually have all different types of licenses all over the country. You can already find alcohol, food, busking… Lots of topics.

As always with open data, there’ll be many unpredictable uses. Most users will do so quietly, you will never know they did. Perhaps a manager at Pets at Home can spot changing pet shop market conditions, or a musician carefully examine the busking license data…

2. Tax disc for vehicles

Tax disc applications

Basic data about transactional services can potentially tell you a lot about the economy. For example, the graph on the right of vehicle tax disc applications. This could tell an auto dealer – or a hedge fund! – information about car ownership.

It is constantly updated, you’re getting much fresher data than any current national statistics. If you need it, the current number of users online is updated in real time. As the performance platform expands, I’d expect it to offer breakdowns by location and type of vehicle.

A charity can learn about digital inclusion from this open data. How many people are applying online as opposed to at a post office?

The future

Already, with the performance platform only in its alpha phase, numerous datasets are being released as a side effect. This will grow for several reasons:

  • GDS aspire to have hundreds of services covered, across the whole range of Government.
  • Service managers in departments can get extra visualisations they need, extending the diversity of data.
  • At some point politicians will start asking for more things to be measured.
  • Maybe in the end activists will make pull requests to improve the data released.

This is great for businesses, charities, citizens, and the Government itself. A fundamentally new kind of open data – that which transactional services can spit out automatically. Making things open makes things better.

What data are you looking forward to the performance platform accidentally releasing for you?

5 thoughts on “The best data opens itself on UK Gov’s Performance Platform”

  1. Unfortunately I disagree that this is the ‘best’ data. It’s data certainly, and definitely shows the value of GDS but I think there are a few gaps that would make Potemkin proud ;) This might sounds a little critical of GDS, it isn’t really as I don’t believe their intention was for this to do much more than it actually does – show the value in the services they’re delivering.

    With reference to your examples, there is a huge amount of potentially useful data missing, or at least not easily/obviously available. Knowing the number of pet shops licenses applied for within a specific Local Authority is one thing, but a lot of them tend to cover a large area. Surely better to know specifically where the application was for, whether the application was successful, etc. The licenses for Environmental Permitting (https://www.gov.uk/performance/licensing/licences/environmental-permitting) also surely contain more data than simply the authority that received the application. Fairly critical I would have thought given the general label.

    Likewise the tax disc application doesn’t show any information about the vehicle that was registered. Lots of data about how many people completed it and how, along with errors they encountered, but no information on the subject of the application – what level of tax were they applying for, region, 12 or 6 months, number of exemptions and so forth.

    As constrained as ‘massive directories’ are, and exacerbated by the fact that the real problem isn’t a technical one, they do serve a purpose. They contain data from agencies not within GDS remit, and they contain data that is useful outside of citizens’ interaction with government. In particular, all of the geodata (for the INSPIRE directive and others) that does not result from interaction with government, nor the spending data, social data, or health.

    I love metrics as much as the next geek, but all of this leads me to think that the Performance Platform is a great tool for tracking the usage of their digital services, but not a great tool for any obtaining data about the end result of those services. ‘Best’ data? Sure, if your criteria are ‘use of our services’, not so much if detail matters.

    All credit to GDS for getting Local Authorities to provide that data that they need though, I think it’s critical to having a healthy open government data ecology. I interact a *lot more with local government than with central government, and I’d love to see them make more, and more useful data available about the things that affect me on a day to day basis.

    • Although some of the metrics were obtained via Google Analytics.
    1. Even if this was the best data, how is it more useful for not being registered in the relevant ‘massive directory’ (data.gov.uk)? If I wanted this data and didn’t happen to have read your blog post, how would I ever know it was there?

      1. Ross – I wasn’t implying the current data is “best”, sorry if it sounded like that! I’m saying that the best data should just open itself.

        So yes, the ideal pet licensing data would come about because there’s a pet licensing system which as a matter of course publishes all its data.

        It should just be routine as part of the system. I’m using the Performance Platform as an example, because they’re just publishing the data in passing – it’s not their main goal.

        Mark – as an analogy, same reason everybody decided to use Google rather than the original Yahoo directory. Directories are always out of date and incomplete, and less good than search going straight to the information.

        In the end game, you’d find it because it’d just be part of the website of the Government service. You’d just assume it is there.

        I think the data directories are valuable now. As a user though, in the end, I’d rather every Government service just published data as part of what it does.

        1. Having gov systems deliver data as a matter of course would be wonderful – I seem to recall that the French data portal (I am maybe misremembering) publish the XLS files they actually work with. I think it’s going to take a v.long time here though.

          Most Local Authorities have proprietary systems where they are required to pay the vendor in order to extract data into a ‘report’. A cost that is a burden whilst funding is disappearing, and something I’ve heard a few times as I do work to harvest Local Authority data into our site. It isn’t clear to me whether the vendors charge each of their LAs for the same report.

          It’s great that GDS get to rewrite all of these systems, but it would be even better if LAs had access to open software with the features they need both to fulfil the service and obtain the data from the silo. It strikes me as crazy that each authority will have gone to a different vendor for their Council Tax system for instance – surely there’s a common 80% (SMEs could make their money with open extensions). I wouldn’t normally advocate for a monoculture, but I think this is different.

          I guess we have to wait for GDS to finish central gov before they start fixing local gov, I know Local Gov will complain (they all think they’re different ;) ) but until they have their systems fixed, it’ll take forever …

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