Thursday, January 21, 2010

I'm often rather cynical about Government websites, they tend to cost extortionately high amounts of money with little return value - the Department of Communities and Local Government is a case in point, where they spent thousands of pounds on blogs, wiki's and forums and pretty much nobody uses them.

However, the latest development, lifted from America (natch!) is which is an attempt to provide an API entry points for Government datasets where others can code applications that bring things together in useful ways, e.g* or one of my favourites

In ponceyspeak terms this is what we hear called "mashups", where you join data from different sources to produce something more useful - something that relational databases have been doing for years in closed environments.

Anyway, lots of people are very excited about it, and there is quite a bit of fawning being directed at Sir Tim Berners-Lee because of his involvement (the man who created an acronym that has more syllables than the term it's meant to be shortening, "www vs world wide web" ain't it great?).

The question is will it work? The answer is yes, it probably will.

The commercial application of this freely available data is, to say the least, impressive. I expect lots of people will make lots of money from it. Obviously you have get yourself past some of the fluffy speak that goes with some of the current applications, for example, Where Does My Money Go which is an application,
promote transparency and citizen engagement through the analysis and visualisation of information about UK public spending
Or as I prefer to describe it, "a pretty picture of coloured blobs to help political nerds get angry whilst everyone else carries on looking at Page 3 and watching X Factor" (there goes my cynical side again).

Whether this sort of thing really does aid transparency is yet to be seen, but one thing it will do politically (in democracies at least), is provide opposition parties with the means to beat a Government over the head - expect the phrase "post code lottery" to become an even more common term when people can start to make comparisons across so many different areas of Government.

Crucially, the success of any of this relies entirely on a Government's willingness to publish data and its reliability or truthfulness when it is published - think tractor statistics and corn production in the Soviet Union. The risk is, garbage in gets you garbage out.

Is it going to change our world? Maybe. Is it going to focus the minds of those who pull the levers of elected and bureaucratic power? Undoubtedly. The words "creating a rod for your own back" spring to mind.

* You may be able to tell them what you think, but will they listen?

P.S. I wish they wouldn't call things "beta" when they make them live.
P.P.S. I wonder how long it might take before someone finds a nifty exploit in the APIs.

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