iGov - can data make a difference in government?

  • 8 November 2012
  • From the section Technology
  • comments
David Cameron

The news that the government has developed an app, the Number 10 Dashboard, to give David Cameron and his top team data on the state of the UK has met with a cynical response. "Not the way to run the country. X Factor gov't!" - according to one tweeter.

The idea that the prime minister and senior civil servants might be running the country from an iPad with some kind of iGov app has obvious comic potential. We know for instance that the PM is a fan of Fruit Ninja - let's hope he does not get the two mixed up.

But there's a serious intent behind the app - to use the latest techniques to make data available to policymakers - which in other contexts would be applauded. The Number 10 Dashboard, according to someone who has been involved in its development, is merely echoing what is already being done in the business world.

The search company involved in the project, Adzuna, says it is drawing data from a wide variety of sources - Twitter, Google, property listings and recruitment sites - coupled with official government statistics. The idea is to give users what Adzuna's co-founder Doug Monro calls "a data-driven approach to decision making."

If the information is presented in a user-friendly way, rather than in some hefty document buried at the bottom of a red box, that just might make our leaders more likely to absorb it. The fact that this initiative has been pushed through - no doubt amid scepticism from some in the PM's media team - is a small victory for the government's geek tendency.

And from across the Atlantic comes evidence that it is worth listening to those who say a deeper understanding of data matters. Nate Silver, the statistician whose blog crunched the numbers ahead of the presidential election and produced a stunningly accurate forecast, is now being feted as a seer.

Yet beforehand, his confidence in predicting an Obama win was derided by those pundits who insisted it was "too close to call" and by Republicans accusing Mr Silver of allowing his Democrat sympathies to cloud his vision. As one rather fabulous webcomic has it "to surprise of pundits, numbers continue to be best system for determining which of two things is larger."

It is that belief in numbers which has driven the development of the Number 10 Dashboard - if you believe the people behind the app. Mind you, it's one thing to have the right data at your fingertips, quite another to use it to make the right decisions. David Cameron is apparently going to show off his Number 10 Dashboard to President Obama the next time they meet. Given the scary numbers that the app may provide on government deficits, is it fanciful to suggest that the president might suggest a game of Fruit Ninja instead?