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Government updates National Information Infrastructure

25/03/15

A flurry of Cabinet Office announcements include changes to the NII, a new role for Mike Bracken, 16 councils as open data champions, and transparency principles for government contracts

A number of changes are being made in the National Information Infrastructure (NII) with the aim of making it a "living hub", according to Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude.

Francis MaudeThe move comes with a flurry of announcements that appear to place a pre-election seal on a series of data initiatives from the department during the current parliament. They include a new role for Mike Bracken, the appointment of 16 local authorities as open data champions, and the provision of new transparency principles for government contracts.

The key changes in the NII - which includes datasets held by government which have the broadest economic and social impacts - include the creation of application program interfaces (APIs) to help users obtain updates automatically and in real time. APIs specify how software components should interact and can make it easier to build applications to access data.

Schemes, codelists and vocabularies will be published alongside the datasets, and service level agreements will be introduced. These are meant to ensure that there will be advance notice and a clear explanation if the structure or format of any data is changed or the publication timetable is amended.

Maude claimed the changes will transform the NII from a "static inventory of government data to a living hub".
In addition, any datasets that can be released as open data will be included in the NII under the Open Government Licence and in a non-proprietary, machine readable format. It is understood that, while the Cabinet Office is pushing for the publication of as much data as possible in a reusable format, it believes there should be exceptions and is not making any guarantees.

Extra role for Bracken

Among the other announcements was that the head of the Government Digital Service, Mike Bracken, has been given the additional job of government chief data officer. He will be responsible for developing a new Government Data Standard, championing open data, encouraging the use of data in decision-making, and developing government skills in data analysis.

The appointment reflects a growing emphasis on the importance of the role in large organisations, prompted by the increased recognition of the value of data in supporting strategic decisions. Although there is no wide consensus on its definition, it generally involves determining what types of data should be captured and exploited, in contrast to the digital officer's role of driving business through digital technology.

Open data champions

Maude also announced that 16 local authorities have been made "open data champions" to contribute to relevant initiatives. They were identified in a partnership with the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Local Government Association for their efforts in making more data freely available to the public for re-use.

They will take part in a local exemplar network to look at issues around open data transparency and how central and local government can work together, and to contribute to further work on the NII. They could also be involved in developing open data eco-systems around service areas such as health and social care.

The list comprises Barnet, Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridgeshire, Devon, Glasgow, Hampshire, Lambeth, Leeds, London, Manchester, Windsor & Maidenhead, Redbridge, Sunderland, Surrey and Trafford.

Maude said: "Transparency is an idea whose time has come. Open data helps sharpen accountability, support economic growth, and inform choice over public services.

"The potential rewards are enormous - smarter, more responsive and more cost-effective public services - and Britain is now consistently ranked first for openness. These open data champions are another way we are placing transparency at the heart of our long term economic plan."

Transparency principles

In addition, Maude launched two sets of principles aimed at improving the transparency of government contracts. They include a clause that all central government contracts worth more than £10,000 will be published in the online Contracts Finder in an open and structured format.

The principles will be tested in trials on a new transparency clause in public sector contracts.

Maude said they align with transparency provisions set out in a report by the Institute for Government, although the Cabinet Office document does not include any reference to the reusability of the data. The institute's report says the usefulness of the data "will hinge on how it is presented and whether it can be reused under an open data licence".

Sir Ian Magee, senior fellow at the Institute and chair of the taskforce that produced the Cabinet Office principles, gave a qualified welcome to the move. He said: "The transparency provisions agreed in this report will help make government contracts more open and accountable to the public. So while this publication represents significant progress, we are clear that this is only just the beginning."

Pictured: Francis Maude by Paul Clarke © | paulclarke.com

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