Whitehall teams designing data infrastructure must make sure it is relevant to the majority of civil servants and that it is easy to adopt – rather than building for an “idealised future” of data use.
According to the Government Digital Service, research on the way civil servants find and use data has emphasised the need for those designing open registers and other government data infrastructure to take into account the realities of data use across Whitehall.
Writing on the GDS blog, user researcher Kieron Kirkland said that it was easy to get carried away “building for an idealised data future” but that without properly considering the diverse range of users, projects to improve data infrastructure risked failure.
“Most government service teams don’t really care about data, they care about their service,” Kirkland wrote.
Because of this, people will only change the way they use data if they are shown that adopting new methods – such as increasing their use of the government’s open, authoritative lists of resources or information, known as registers – will improve their services.
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Any data infrastructure must be relevant and address real-life service problems – and designers must be aware of not “just asserting how we’d like people to be using data”.
For instance, Kirkland said that many people’s first instinct is to ask someone in their team if they want reference data. This sort of behaviour must be taken into account when developing new data services, or those developers risk impeding users’ chances of finding the data sources.
In addition, Kirkland said that most civil servants are not used to using specialised data formats. Instead “they’re looking at data in Excel”. This means that – even if the underlying data structures are much richer and more flexible – that data should still be made available in a spreadsheet for users who prefer this format.
Meanwhile, Kirkland said that metadata – although potentially useful – was found to be overwhelming for users if too much was shown to them upfront.
He also noted work that has been done on the government’s open registers that will allow teams to download and store their own copy of the latest version of a list, rather than insisting that people fetch data from one central source via an API.
The government has recently acknowledged the importance of ensuring that Whitehall’s data infrastructure is up to date, with civil service chief executive John Manzoni saying that the “data revolution” is “coming for government”.
Meanwhile, the government’s industrial strategy green paper, published last week, made a commitment to creating an “effective data infrastructure” so that “open data drives growth, efficiency and innovation” in the UK.