The government has broken ground on a mine of information as open-source site data.gov.uk enters public beta.
Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee and government advisor Professor Nigel Shadbolt have worked on the site for seven months and the doors have now been thrown open on a beta site to view all kinds of data on government services, spending and research. Curiously, searching for the word 'expenses' yields no interesting results.
The 2,500 data sets are made available to encourage users to create apps and mash-ups that bring the information to life. Examples include Where does my money go?, which visualises public spending, a map of schools by Oftsed scores, and an iPhone app that uses GPS to find your nearest pharmacy (iTunes link).
Our favourite is the fiendishly clever Where can I live? which commingles London house prices with commuting distance to your chosen location to tell you where you can afford to live. In our case, it appears we can afford a soggy bin-bag round the back of CNET Towers.
The site is built with open-source tools and with forward-looking principles of the semantic Web in mind. It's powered by the Drupal content-management system, with data catalogued by Comprehensive Knowledge Archive Network (CKAN). Data is presented in Resource Description Framework (RDF) form, which points the way to the semantic Web with its clever handling of metadata. In future, data.gov.uk will use the semantic Web to make searching more intuitive -- it's pretty clunky at the moment -- and make mining information a doddle for everyone.
If you have an idea but you're no coder, submit them to the ideas section, alongside such suggestions as data on council tax expenditure, anti-social behaviour and UFO sightings. There's also a forum and wiki to hang out with other dataheads. As the site develops, you'll be able to type in your postcode for information on local services, crime, house prices and much more.