Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Bringing the science to open data

Open data isn’t exactly a high profile issue for the public, but MPs on the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) have got their teeth into the subject. The publication this week of its Statistics and Open Data report shows that its members are not happy with the progress of campaign, and believe it’s falling far short of its promise to boost business and provide better government through making most government data sets freely available.

One shortcoming that stands out is that public servants themselves don’t have the skills to do much with the data, and the statisticians who do often hide away when they should be champions for the cause. It follows up with a call on the Government to encourage training of more data scientists, with a timetable and target numbers, and include data skills and open data awareness in the Civil Service policy training.

It reflects the fact that open data is often messy data, and while there is a case for standardisation, it is unlikely the public sector will have the resource or the inclination to make it more user-friendly. For the foreseeable future it’s take it or leave it, and taking it will only be a serious option for those with someone with the ability to extract knowledge from the mess.

It ties in with a call that I’m hearing more often for an increase in the number of data scientists. Businesses are being told that if they want to take advantage of big data and the internet of things they need people with more the mathematical skills to grab insights from the torrent of information, but the investment isn’t an easy sell at the moment. It’s still a vague idea for many, and the benefits seem a long way off.

There’s a need for more degree courses and vocational training, and the Government could give it a push by developing some of its statisticians into the role of data scientists. It’s not just about the training, but beefing up the role, and giving it the type of profile that it gave to CIOs a few years ago. If it’s something for people in the Civil Service to aspire to, it could raise the profile of the role and set a trend for others to follow.

The immediate effect would be limited to a few Whitehall departments, but it could provide some longer term momentum for the profession and do something for the cause of open data.

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