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More than half of Scots councils do not publish data

Over half of councils do not make data publicly available and Scotland is “lagging behind other countries” such as Finland and France in facilitating an “open data culture”, says a new report.

A study by the David Hume Institute (DHI) says that 18 out of 32 local authorities do not publish data.

The think tank estimates that slow progress by Scotland on making data freely available could cost the Scottish economy around £2bn.

Open data – considered a key factor in the improvement of public services – is data that can be freely used, re-used and redistributed by anyone, subject only to the requirement to attribute and share alike.

In 2015, the Scottish Government launched its open data strategy, with the aim that by 2020 Scotland could use data better to improve public services. 

But DHI says progress has been slow. Its report points out that other European nations publish extensive datasets on areas such as public transport, social policy, public decision-making, and education. 

…the bigger picture is one of Scotland lagging behind other countries in facilitating an open data culture which brings benefits on many levels, from social policy to economic growth.

Susan Murray, director of DHI

In Scotland there is no government-provided national open data portal, for example, whereas the French government’s portal has 40,863 data sets.

The DHI study said it was difficult to compare data due to the “inconsistency of availability” across Scotland’s local authority areas.

Over the last seven years several council portals have moved address or closed down and Highland Council’s “vanished completely”.

The report notes that in 2015 Glasgow City Council was seen as a “European Leader with a portal with over 400 datasets” – but that presence was taken offline and replaced with a more modest offering of 62 datasets.

To give an international comparison, the authors cited Finland and a project called Helsinki Region Infoshare which hosts 1000 data-sets. These include detailed statistical data on schools, wellbeing and social services.

DHI’s report said: “Access to open data (in Finland) has enabled innovation through various apps for example around public transport and tourist services. One example of these is Blindsquare, which allows blind, blinddeaf and sight impaired citizens to more easily navigate the region.”

Over 95 per cent of the data that could and should be open is still locked up, DHI says, claiming that this costs the Scottish economy just over £2bn each year.

The estimate was made using the EU’s data portal (data europa) which looked at 15 studies on the impact of open data on gross domestic product. This was then applied to Scotland’s GDP of £178bn.

The report calls for action from national and local government. Recommendations include “adopting open data as a core part of their digital strategy” and the creation of a “national open data portal”.

Susan Murray, director of DHI, said: “As part of the David Hume Institute’s recent work analysing open data available for communities (on how community assets benefit people) in partnership with the William Grant Foundation, we found it difficult to compare data due to the inconsistency of availability across Scotland’s local authority areas.

She added: “Ours is just one project hindered by a lack of open data but the bigger picture is one of Scotland lagging behind other countries in facilitating an open data culture which brings benefits on many levels, from social policy to economic growth.”

Ian Watt, co-founder of Open Data Scotland and trustee of Code the City, said open data has a range of benefits that can positively impact people, “from live Covid-19 dashboards used by media, to online mapping and navigation apps”.

He added: “We need government to take a lead on open data access in order to ensure that benefits are shared across all sectors of society and the economy.”

Councils
Open data – considered a key factor in the improvement of public services – is data that can be freely used, re-used and redistributed by anyone. Image by Chombosan.

The Councils’ Strategies

A Glasgow City Council spokesman: “The new Open Data Hub that we launched last year makes it easier for us to publish and maintain open data and also makes it easier for us to publish accurate information in a meaningful way that can inform and inspire people through the use of data stories, dashboards, and maps. 

“We believe that helping people to understand the data, and to make use of the data for community engagement and empowerment, and to drive innovation is more important than simply counting the number of data sets that are published.”

Pandemic data released recently by GCC has tracked coronavirus cases across local neighborhoods and footfall in Glasgow city centre. 

A Highland Council spokesman said: “We engaged with the Scottish Cities Alliance with regard to the open data platform as it appeared to be an efficient way to procure the technology, but we withdrew when it became apparent that there was insufficient resource within the council’s budget to extract and maintain datasets from the council’s systems.  

“As part of bringing our ICT services back in-house within the council, we will be developing a new strategy around information, data and business intelligence and open data will be included in this.”

The Scottish Government said it promotes the publication and use of open data across the public sector, “in order to support the accountability and transparency of Scotland’s public services”.

A government spokesperson added: “The Scottish Government recognises that opening access to data will improve transparency and accountability, digital inclusion, open government and create economic opportunity.”

The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities was asked to comment but did not respond.

Cover Photo credit: iStock/Chombosan

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