Government opens up more data for free

Man with brolly in strong winds on Brighton seafront
Image caption The government is to release a comprehensive set of public weather data

Experts have welcomed the UK government's decision to open up a range of data relating to healthcare, travel, house prices and weather forecasting.

The plan was announced in Chancellor George Osborne's Autumn Statement.

The government also said it would provide £10m to fund an Open Data Institute - to be headed up by web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

Releasing such data will bring its own challenges, think some.

"It is good news because it shows that people at the top of government realise the economic potential of open data, but there are lots of practical issues to sort out," said Mike Cross, journalist and founder of the Free Our Data campaign.

Chief among these is how to make sure any released data is anonymised, he thinks.

"With the health data it is possible to reverse identify the patient, for example if the data is at the GP level and about rare diseases," said Mr Cross.

And although the new data releases are being heralded as "free", it might not work out that way.

"If you look in the small print, the government reserves the right to charge for healthcare data," he said.

The government is keen to release such data as part of its plans to kickstart the economy.

"The effective use of public sector data is vital to the growth of the UK's knowledge economy. Much of this information has a high value, both in terms of the economic as well as social benefit that can be realised through its use," the document reads.

"Organisations, and even individuals, can exploit this data in ways which government could not be expected to foresee," it concludes.

House prices

The first data to be released will come from the Met Office. It will open up public weather service forecasts and real-time observation datasets under the Open Government Licence.

From March 2012, the Land Registry will make address-level house price information available.

The Department for Transport will make real-time train and bus timetables available from April 2012. It will also release data about roadworks to allow developers to create traffic-related apps aimed at easing congestion.

Data from the NHS will be released from September 2012 to help the healthcare research industry develop new products and services.

The healthcare data is potentially "enormously valuable" thinks Mr Cross, and he foresees a range of services being launched on the back of the Met Office data.

"It could provide the basis of localised weather forecasting," he said.

The government is also committed to ensuring citizens have greater access to their personal data.

By the end of the current parliament, it has pledged to make all GP records available online. From spring 2012 it will look at improving the way parents and pupils can access education data.

The "personal information market" is, according to a document published by the Cabinet Office, "the next stage of development on from the growth of social networks".

The government estimates that public sector data in the UK is worth about £16bn.

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