The public sector is awash with information that could and should be accessible to a much wider audience than it is today. In the internet age, we need the tools to open these data up to the public, with huge potential benefits in a variety of unexpected areas.
The Government has asked two academics at the University of Southampton to investigate ways of making it happen. The better known of the pair, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, is one of the founders of the world wide web, and his six- month appointment was announced by the Prime Minister in Parliament earlier this month.
However, his long-term collaborator, Nigel Shadbolt, professor of artificial intelligence in Southampton's School of Electronics and Computer Science, is an equal partner in the project.
"The principal invitation was for Tim to do this and he asked that I should help," he explained.
The Government's desire to tap into the professors' expertise parallels the interest shown in the notion of e-government by the Obama Administration in the US.
It is also driven by a 2003 European directive on the "re-use of public sector information", which pushes governments to make the most of the data they hold for the public good.
Although the project is still in the planning stage, Professor Shadbolt explained that a vast amount of the information that is collected by local and national government, from data about accidents to food safety to schools, can be "quite hard for the public to get at" as it tends to get "buried" in various websites. The idea is to provide a single point of access online to integrate this information.
"If you knew where particular accident blackspots for cyclists were and you could intersect that with favourite routes of travel or public rights of way, then you could have a service that says 'notice this is a problematic area' or 'notice you can avoid it by going this way'," Professor Shadbolt explained.
He said that the idea is not to move the information from departmental websites but to build a "very powerful directory" that would then make it "extremely easy to repurpose" the data.
"With the web you click a link and don't worry about where a document is living or who is hosting it," he added.
Professor Shadbolt is an expert in the ecology of the web and previously worked with the Office of Public Sector Information, work that laid the foundations for this latest initiative.