The government lacks a clear evidence-based policy on whether or not to charge for data and should investigate the economic benefits of making all data free, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has said in its report on the government's transparency agenda.
Some bodies, such as the Met Office, Ordnance Survey, Land Registry and Companies House, operate as trading funds that depend on generating a share of their revenue from data sales. But academic estimates suggest that there would be considerable economic benefits from making that data available for free.
“It is not clear whether the established trading fund structures are compatible with the policy objective of stimulating economic growth through more open data release," said the spending watchdog.
“The Cabinet Office should work with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to establish whether the economic benefits from making traded data freely available would outweigh the revenue lost,” said the report.
PAC chair Margaret Hodge said the government has a lot more work to do before the potential of open data is realised. “Data is also being issued by government and other public bodies without any clear idea of the costs, benefits and risks of doing so. The government should develop a comprehensive analysis of what it actually costs to release data, and of the real benefits and risks," she said.
The report also slammed the government for failing to present data in a way that can be easily interpreted. “It is simply not good enough to dump large quantities of raw data into the public domain. It must be accessible, relevant and easy for us all to understand. Otherwise the public cannot use it to make comparisons and exercise choice, which is the key objective of the transparency agenda.
“At the moment too much data is poorly presented and difficult to interpret. In some sectors, such as adult social care, there are big gaps in the information provided so users cannot use it to make informed choices,” said Hodge.
Bill McCluggage, advisory technology consultant at storage company EMC, said: “I endorse the points that the government has made great progress in terms of publishing open data. However, we believe that there is further opportunity to exploit the transparency policy to drive greater benefit. While access to relevant data can be fraught with issues, success is in sight and with the right approach to the development of new applications, and a focus on opportunities for monetisation, open data could help power growth in the economy.”