Here at Delib, we’re always glad to see people using technology to broaden the transparency of Government and to enable the public to participate in democracy as more informed citizens.

As the saying goes, ‘knowledge is power’: I’m a big believer in equipping citizens with the facts first so they can engage with what Government is doing (or not doing). With the right information in front of them, people can then begin to engage, comment and challenge.

It’s true that ‘begin’ is the operative word there; presenting data and facts in a useful manner is just the start. True open government and digital democracy requires a more holistic approach and much more needs to be done than simply publishing better data.

But we should definitely celebrate steps in the right direction and give appropriate credit where change is happening – like at The Office for National Statistics (ONS), for example. The ONS is the UK’s national statistical institute and the largest producer of official statistics. One of its key responsibilities is to collect, analyse and disseminate a range of key economic, social and demographic statistics about the UK. Early in 2014, the ONS conducted some research into the audience of its website. They wanted to understand the characteristics of users in order to help them achieve their stated aims of supporting democratic debate and finding ‘innovative ways of making data, statistics and analysis more accessible, engaging and easier to understand’.

Image describing the core characteristics of a "inquiring citizen" user

Image from http://digitalpublishing.ons.gov.uk/2014/04/02/the-persona-touch/

The persona of an ‘Inquiring Citizen’

Three core ‘personas’ were identified in their research: ‘Expert Analysts’, ‘Information Foragers’ and ‘Inquiring Citizens’. (If you’re anything like me, you’re squarely in the third camp: ‘I’m not a power user looking to analyse complex patterns and knuckle down with regression curves. I’m just looking to find a trustworthy source of information about things in the news!’)

What the ONS found was that they needed to simplify their website, reduce the complexity of the language and make the whole site more responsive.

Visual.ONS was released earlier in January this year and represents a first step, sitting alongside a partner site to the ONS Beta website which is acting as a testing ground for a future ONS website for the ‘analysts’ and ‘foragers’.

Image of data visualisation of average house prices in the UK presented in the Visual.ONS website

Image taken from http://visual.ons.gov.uk/visualising-your-constituency/

Although still in its infancy, Visual.ONS has already drummed up some positive engagement in its first few months. A particular piece of analysis on ‘single people in the UK’ using Census data has captured the imagination. The current featured piece on maps illustrates different data sets on a map of the UK and is useful for comparisons. If you’re in the market to buy a new house, it might be worth checking this out to find out where your next move might be… (I’ve already settled on Burnley). This shows that there is real potential for data published by the ONS to spark wider discussion and debate when presented in an accessible format.

There is a lot to be encouraged about from the direction of travel that the ONS is taking and even better that it began from some good old fashioned survey research. With the UK perfectly placed as a leader in open data as well, I am holding cautious optimism for a brighter, more open policy making future with a greater dash of public engagement.

Eric – secondee from the the Civil Service Fast Stream