UK Web Focus

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Government to Force Universities to Publish Data – Hurrah?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 26 June 2011

Earlier today in an article entitled “Universities forced to publish new data” the Daily Telegraph described how “Universities are to be forced to publish a range of new information – including how many hours’ lectures and tutorials students receive – as part of a sweeping set of reforms due to be announced this week“.

I was alerted to this new by a tweet from @karenblakeman which led to a subsequent discussion as to whether Universities should be concerned about the implications of the forthcoming announcement or should welcome the opportunity to embrace openness in order to demonstrate the diversity of services provided by the university sector.

I suspect there will be suspicious that this decision is being taken to provide an opportunity to bring into question the value for money provided by the institutions currently involved in providing higher education. But this would perhaps be a rather hypocritical position to be taken by those who heralded the commitment to open data taken by the Labour Government in spring 2010 and featured in articles such as “Gordon Brown launches big shift to open gov data and broadband but where’s the detail?“. We now seem to be seeing the detail – and it applies to the University sector and not just, for example, opening up ordnance survey data in order to allow developers to provide a rich set of mashups.

We are also seeing arguments about the diversity of the services provided across the HE sector, with one person commenting in response to the Daily Telegraph article:

What is absolutely vital to know is the student-staff ratio (SSR) by department. The average SSR for a whole university is usually all that is currently available and is quite meaningless. My business school has an SSR of 30:1 (and this is a Russell Group university); other departments more favoured by the university centre have SSRs of 12:1 and still boast of offering tutorials

Whilst it is indisputably true that there is much diversity across he University sector – and also within individual institutions themselves – it could also be pointed out that the same argument could have been made (and, indeed, was made) when the Daily Telegraph first broke the story about the MPs expenses claims and developers, such as Tony Hirst, subsequently provided analyses of the data once the data had been released.

Surely if you believe that public sector organisations, in particular, should be open and transparent in areas which don’t conflict with data protection issues then should beliefs shouldn’t change if a new government is elected? And such openness shouldn’t just relate to institutional data related to the student experience – as I’ve suggested in recent posts it should also apply to the data about the contents of institutional repositories and the services provided by academic libraries.

I particularly enjoyed the talk on”The Good (and Bad) News About Open Data” by Chris Taggart of openlylocal.com, “a prototype/proof-of-concept for opening up local authority data … [where] everything is open data, free for reuse by all (including commercially)“.

In making this argument I am revisiting this talk, which was given at the Online Information 2010 conference, in which Chris described how openlylocal.com aims to provide “a prototype/proof-of-concept for opening up local authority data … [where] everything is open data, free for reuse by all (including commercially)“. Chris’s presentation he described the potential benefits which openness can provide and listed concerns which are frequently mentioned and responses to such concerns. Rather than trying to apply Chris’s approaches in the content of the government’s forthcoming announcement I will simply link to Chris’s presentation which is available on Slideshare and embedded below.

So if the following arguments are being used to maintain the status quo, remember that increasing numbers of councils have already found their own ways of addressing concerns such as:

  • People & organisations see it as a threat (and it is if you are wedded to the status quo, or an intermediary that doesn’t add anything)
  • The data is messy e.g. tied up in PDFs, Word documents, or arbitrary web pages
  • The data is bad
  • The data is complex
  • The data is proprietary
  • The data contains personal info
  • The data will expose incompetence
  • The tools are poor and data literacy in the community is low

Chris Gutteridge has already welcomed the news in his response to the Daily Telegraph’s article: “Yay. The UK government has some amazing people working in the field of open data. The UK commitment to Open Data with Open standards is something to be proud of. If they help advise on the standard then it’ll be good.”

HEFCE have already announced that from September 2012 they will be providing Key Information Sets (KIS) which are “comparable sets of standardised information about undergraduate courses … designed to meet the information needs of prospective students and will be published ‘in context’ on the web-sites of universities and colleges“.

The KIS will contain areas of information that students have identified as useful including student satisfaction; course information; employment and salary data; accommodation costs; financial information, such as fees and students’ union information. A mockup of the KIS output is available (Adobe PDF 432K) or (MS Word 1.3 Mb) and is illustrated in this post.

If the exercise in collating this data from Universities results in the provision of access to the data in PDF format we will, I feel, have lost a valuable opportunity to take a significant move in providing open access to data in an accessible, open, structured, linkable and reusable form.

My view is that we should be looking at the lead which has been taken by the University of Southampton and the information they provide on Open Data from UK Academic Institutions – with the discussions focussing on well-understood technical arguments around open data and Linked Data. But David Kernohan, in a post entitled “The bubble of openness?” has recently asked “Is openness (in the form of open access to knowledge, and the open sharing of distilled knowledge) a contemporary bubble, destined to collapse as universities and industries seek to tighten their budgets?“. Meanwhile in a post entitled “The Paradox of Openness: The High Costs of Giving Online” provides details of a session to be held at the ALT-C conference will examine the paradoxes of giving and receiving online in education in a changing economic climate, pointing out that “Ownership in the age of openness calls for clarity about mutual expectations between learners, communities and ourselves“.

Perhaps the benefits of openness do need to be questioned after all. But are the concerns related to the use and access to open Educational Resources (OERs) relevant to discussions about the openness of data about the institution and the student experience?


Twitter conversation from Topsy: [View]

2 Responses to “Government to Force Universities to Publish Data – Hurrah?”

  1. If you’ve ever had the misfortune to go to data.gov.uk then i’d not worry to much about open data and the government. Most of the links don’t work (404) or return you something next to useless.

    A civil service friend described it as “a start”. Which as classifications go is somehow both broad and damming in one word. Pretty impressive, Sir Humphrey.

    Whenever something is forced either I just suspect the quality will be awful.

    The point is, perhaps, why are Universities still being led like a prize bull, and not actually doing stuff first? I get the feeling forcing Unis to do stuff is a bit like forcing pandas to mate. We all think it’s important, but you know, is it worth the effort anymore?

  2. […] Government to Force Universities to Publish Data – Hurrah? […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

 
%d bloggers like this: