Government data: access all areas

Public managers need to bring their data out of silos and share it with other departments and citizens to improve democracy, and no one should be excluded from the internet - delegates at this year's Activate summit were told
Nigel Shadbolt, director of the Web Science Trust & The Web Foundation. Photograph: Linda Nylind

Since when were the location of bus stops a state secret? Never?

Trying telling that to Nigel Shadbolt, director of the Web Science Trust & The Web Foundation, who has been advising the government on opening up its data.

Speaking at the recent Guardian's Activate 2010 Summit Shadbolt pointed out that it is only in the past year government departments have appeared willing to release such "sensitive" data as the location of bus stops, bicycle routes, allotments and NHS dental practices and said he wanted to "shine the light on data to empower it through its democratic use".

Raw data has taken on an extraordinary life of its own, he added, with people building their own apps, from an 'Asborometer' to gauge the level of crime in an area to real-time maps of cycle lanes showing accident blackspots.

"Data is not dry dusty stuff, but dynamic and it can be used to improve democracy," Shadbolt told delegates. He said government departments should bring their data out of their silos and share it; collectively it can make a huge difference to society.

Picking up the theme at the summit's session on politics, democracy and public life session, Beth Simone Noveck, the US chief technology officer and director of the White House Open Government initiative, said the Obama administration had promised more open access of government data, and there was even a race on with the UK as to who can release the most.

Openness strengthens democracy and improves efficiency of government, she said. Instead of regulation and legislation, governments should look more to transparency, collaboration and participation with the public.

The UK "digital champion", and founder of, Martha Lane-Fox, gave an impassioned speech in the same session, declaring that she would like to see 100% citizen engagement on the internet by the time of the London Olympics in 2012.

Everybody benefits when everyone is online

She told delegates that 10 million people in the UK had never used the internet with a further two million only occasionally or have tried it and not gone back. To get more people to use the web she said the government has to rethink its strategy. There should be access everywhere, said Lane-Fox, not just in the home. She called for libraries, GP surgeries, community centres to all have points of access so people from less privileged or disadvantaged backgrounds could engage with the rest of society in a meaningful way.

"Everybody benefits when everyone is online," she said, "people will feel less isolated and it improves confidence."

Illinois-based Steven Clift, founder and executive director of E-Democracy, said the internet is the most democratising way for openness and engagement. At neighbourhood level there is a public space for everyone to participate. "We all live in neighbourhoods, anyone can start a local group," he said. "Whether it's campaigning for a local park or getting involved in community youth projects through blogs and forums - everyone can be included."

Google chief executive Eric Schmidt told the conference that reading news will move to digital devices quite rapidly and warned that organisations should think of their mobile strategy ahead of their internet strategy – but that the two were intertwined so deeply that it was impossible to think of one without the other.

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