The dangers of data talk

There’s been a lot of excited chatter around the opening up of data by the Government – and it is very good news.

But there are a couple of areas which are giving me a little cause of concern – the main one being just how long the data tap will remain switched on.

While I’m sure the Tories have little intention of suddenly closing down data access in the future, there are signs that levels of data collection may reduce in the future.

Take, for example, the announcement this week that the number of health targets will be reduced. On one hand, it’s a quick headline to announce a reduction in red tape, but it also means that less data will be collected.

It’s therefore reasonable to assume that, within the next couple of years, less data will be available.

For example, it would be quite possible currently for someone to develop a data tool which enabled people to find out how likely it was that they could see a GP in their area within 48 hours. But now that target has been scrapped, that suddenly will become impossible.

Another target to be changed is the ’18 weeks from referral to treatment’ one. It will still be recorded, but only locally – so there won’t be one place where you can find the data. This makes the job to analysing that data much harder. For a local journalist, the figure for just a local area isn’t that much use unless you have something to compare it against – although reporters will still have the local figures from previous years.

Over at the education department, there is a lot of talk about more schools becoming academies. One of the advantages, currently, of being an academy school is that you aren’t subject to the Freedom of Information Act. While that doesn’t instantly mean data from those schools won’t be available, it will mean only the data which the government chooses to release will be available. So if you chose to build your own data list from schools – as many reporters do – your work may suddenly have big holes in it.

I also think it’s worth mentioning that a lot of the data being made available via data.gov.uk is already available on government department websites. The fact it’s much easier to find is very important, but a lot of it is data which journalists have had access to for years – it’s often been a case of knowing it is there in the first place. Presenting it as a dark art of sorts, in the same way many did around search engine optimisation, might spawn a mini-industry, but it won’t do much for getting the information out.

Which brings me on to some of suggestions which have been made that journalists aren’t ready to deal with the influx of data. Anyone who has spent time working in the Lobby at Westminster will know this isn’t the case. Any poor education reporter who has had 12 hours to pore over hundreds of pages of data from schools relating to education league tables before turning out a splash and supplement will know had to work with data.

The challenge for journalists is to do more with it than to just make a story. The challenge is to start making it instantly available, with commentary if needed,  for users of their websites to play around with. This is where some of sniffy comments from the public sector have irritated me, the “Open data is meant to prompt innovation, not news stores” brigade.

To me, the two have the same aim – to get the information out to people in a way they can use it easily. Journalists are well placed to benefit from the ease of access to data, but the challenge remains to keep pushing for the information which isn’t already available, and making sure all of that information is released.

In other words,  journalists need to do more with data, and keep demanding more.

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