Open data system launched to help public sector search the world for coronavirus supplies

Spend Network creates tool allowing departments to search for international suppliers

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A new service has been launched which uses open contracting data to help government buyers find suppliers across the world as they respond to the coronavirus crisis.

The tool, built by open data business Spend Network, enables buyers looking for Covid-19-related goods and services to find potential suppliers who have already traded with the public sector across the world.

Data has been sourced from any countries which publish data openly, and the tool uses contract notices from national and local governments across the world, dating back to 2010. It will be updated in real time as the crisis continues.

Ian Makgill, founder of Spend Network, said his team had already been collecting the data, so was able to build the application quickly and “get it onto people’s screens.”

“We were conscious that buyers were struggling to find new suppliers in an emergency, as well as knowing that they’d been thorough in contacting all of the suppliers that they needed to.” 

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Some departments and other public bodies were restoring to using Google to find suppliers, which Makgill said “felt a bit ‘wild west’.”

“We knew that having a history of trading with another public body is a good indication that a supplier is ready to help government at the moment,” he added, “so we thought it would be good to share that data.”

The tool is currently in the beta stage of development, and the team welcomes feedback on how it could be improved to better support public sector buyers. Makgill also emphasised that he would like to work with government so the data can be used to develop its response to the crisis.

“Our data could be very useful in identifying critical businesses and charities in the supply chains of hospitals and care facilities; these are organisations that government needs to protect in the next couple of months and we can definitely help with that,” Makgill said.

He noted that good contracting data – or lack of it – will prove crucial to how the Covid-19 crisis is handled. “This crisis is going to be studied long and hard by supply chain and procurement academics in the future and the issue of data is going to come back again and again.

“We simply didn’t know anything about where to get the right equipment, or how to ramp up demand in a very short timescale. Part of that was because we didn’t understand demand, we didn’t understand what was in stock and we didn’t understand logistics,” he said.

“So we definitely need much, much better data on where our key products are, but also on the long tail of our supply chain. What happens when boring bits of equipment in hospitals stop working? If a hospital’s plumbing fails and the supplier has gone bust, what is going to happen to patients?”

He adds that making contracting data open will help to improve the way it can be used in this and future crises: “We need to think very carefully about the best way to gather this data and how to improve it and making it open is critical to that.

“The supplier search is a really good example of what happens when you publish data openly,” he said, noting that the tool cannot be used in New Zealand because no one is making their contract data open – “they have all the rules in place, but no one has bothered to make it happen.”


Sam Trendall

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