Archive Director argues for wise use of public data

Article dated: 9 December 2011

"The government routinely collects a significant quantity of data which has the potential to inform and improve society," writes Matthew Woollard, Director of the UK Data Archive and ESDS in the latest issue of People & Science, a publication of the British Science Association. Matthew Woollard

In the opinion piece, Woollard sees untapped potential in making government data openly available, citing efficiencies in public services, choice for consumers, and more transparency and accountability in policy decisions. But he cautions that it is too soon to know the true nature and value of these benefits until more public data are made available.

Woollard acknowledges those who say that data already made public has not had the desired effect on society – for example, school league tables – but suggests that this is a case study for the dangers of analysing and interpreting data to support an ideological agenda. He also argues for appropriate security measures in all cases to ensure that personal information is kept confidential in any public data release.

When it comes to the research value of public data, Woollard sees potential in linking 'core' administrative data with existing research data to inform and contextualise analyses – for example, linking the road traffic database to Hospital Episode Statistics. He also strongly advocates for more data sharing among researchers, and for appropriate standards and processes to reduce the time and cost of data preparation, ensure data integrity is retained, and protect against improper release and malicious misuse.