How statistical software success put big data online at UK Department of Works and Pensions
When the UK signed the G8 Open Data Charter in June 2013, it did so knowing its Department of Works and Pensions (DWP) had already got a jump start on the process. The government’s commitment to transparency was in fact a process begun some years before and the logical progression from the earlier ‘joined-up government’ initiatives of the Blair and Brown era.
Formed by merging a number of government functions, the DWP is responsible for social welfare including housing, income support and employment schemes. Using Space-Time Research’s SuperSTAR technology, DWP’s Stat-Xplore system lets users perform their own queries on the actual unit record data. This is made possible by unique confidentialisation methods in SuperSTAR that ensure that no matter what the query, no identifying information can be garnered by users.
It is this aspect of openness that had previously placed limitations on sharing, with privacy the utmost concern. The focus on confidentialisation has paid off for SuperSTAR’s development team, with the technology making it possible to protect the unit record data without restricting the general public to pre-ordained, static results.
This new level of transparency sets the bar high; as governments around the world work to meet their commitments to the Open Data Charter, the old style static data options are starting to seem by comparison rather opaque.
Anyone now seeking information from DWP about topics such as housing benefits can define their own search, using their own browser, in an easy self-service format.
This is the first ever option to allow such freedom for individuals to build their own tables to meet their own aims while absolutely protecting unit record data. Whether seeking to view trends or find detail beyond that previously available, the possibilities are impressive. Where before, a specific request would have been made to the department, which would then have had to allocate resources to research and provide as close an answer as possible manually, today’s self-service takes minutes.
The DWP aims to add other datasets in a progression to full transparency, with the system already attracting thousands of users. Department resources, under pressure to deliver ever more value, are no longer bogged down wasting senior analysis skills on menial tasks and other departments can readily link into the information they need. This will be expanded to other datasets in the future. The economic potential of such open access to data is undeniable, with DWP set to reap benefits of its own in the years to come.