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Data.gov.uk: UK Government launches new data site… complete with blog!

On 19th January the Government launched a new online data service.  Encouraged by the likes of Tim Berners-Lee, and in line with the trend towards open government,  HMG set out to create a single point of access for all non-personal data which it holds.  Education datasets are the ones they’re keenest to show off about, but by no means the only area that’s been opened up by this site.  The scope is enormous, the ambition is laudible and the result is, well, bewildering…

data.gov.uk HMG online data service

The data.gov.uk logo

The best place to start is with their blog (yes, there really is a blog), and the post they wrote on the day of the public launch.  We decided to run a simple query to test the site’s usability.  We wanted see how long it took, and how difficult it was, to find out the level of A*-C GCSE passes in Oxfordshire CC in 2008.  

We learnt very quickly that this database is seriously large.  Hitchiker’s-Guide-to-the-Galaxy-large, only perhaps not quite as entertaining.  And its Search function has still not quite reached Google levels of sophistication.  Enter the wrong search term, and receive zero results.  Enter the right search term and receive 10 pages of unfiltered, alphabetically listed results.  Not quite 10/10 for usability.  Anyway, between the jigs and the reels we learnt that NI 075 is the statistical series which captures GCSE A*-C data.  That, of course, was only the start.  We were then linked to an input screen where you enter the parameters of your search.  Again, the database does not score highly for usability, but there’s no doubting the value.  After about 20 minutes of fiddling, we finallly got the data in a semi-usable format.

The site also advertises the fact that the entire DCSF database on schools, known as Edubase, has been made available on data.gov.uk. Apparently this mammoth database can be accessed via something called SPARQL.  We have to confess, this interface looked so complex, we didn’t even try to use it.  The data.gov.uk blog reliably informs us that you can use SPARQL to answer queries as diverse as:

“Which schools in the BANES area have a nursery?”

Or:

“Select the name, lowest and highest age ranges, capacity and pupil:teacher ratio for all schools in the Bath & North East Somerset district.”

Finally, we tried another search on data.gov.uk to see if it is always so clunky. We decided (slightly childish, we confess) to search to see how many ASBO’s are given out annually.  This time, much easier.  No complex interfaces, just a simple table popped up telling us how many ASBO’s have been given out by county between 1999 and 2007, with a link to a more detailed breakdown in an Excel spreadsheet.  (In case you’re wondering: there were 54 ASBO’s handed out in the Thames Valley area in 2007, as against 2,299 in the whole of England and Wales.  Greater London, Greater Manchester and West Yorksire were the worst offending area, with about 200 each.)

Conclusion: this site is worth looking at.  For those who really need to find something out, are ready to persevere, and have infinite patience, it is an extraordinary resource.  The implications of having all this data more or less at our fingertips will probably take months, maybe years, to become fully apparent.

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