Simon Jenkins in Friday’s Guardian launched an attack on the new crime maps website Theresa May unveiled last week. The article is worth a read for the full broadside – but its essence is that it’s based on meaningless statistics, it’s typical of central government’s intrusive thirst for information, and doesn’t actually achieve anything.
I think this misses the point.
Projects that release public service information aren’t about government hoarding data: they’re about opening it up. If I can access statistics that allow me to make meaningful assessments about crime levels, education provision, or hospital performance in my area – all the things that matter most – then that’s a good thing.
It’s an echo of the ‘post-bureaucratic’ age. This is an ugly and short-lived phrase, but a good and powerful idea – that information about services empowers the people that have to use them. Looking back at pre-election articles or speeches, there’s some interesting thinking about the role of information in accountability, and the potential to create the responsiveness to users that markets are based on, but public services have traditionally escaped.
Not all information is useful, not all government material will be appropriate for release, and better information isn’t in itself going to improve services. Police.uk isn’t perfect: crime statistics certainly need to be presented with appropriate warnings about their accuracy, and it’s arguably better for departments to release raw data for data-geeks to process and visualise, than for Whitehall to choose how to present the information.
But the general principle is sound: the more we know about how our public services are performing, the better.