Government Data: Understanding the Barriers to Citizen Access and Use

Richard Heeks


In almost every country in the world, government remains the single largest repository of data. It stores data on a vast array of topics; data that can be of immense value not just to organisations but also to individual citizens. That value may be economic - helping citizens improve their employment or income-generation potential - or it can be personal/social - helping the citizen to improve their home or community.

Citizen access to government data can therefore be seen as an important component of both economic and social development. Yet that access can be a problematic process. This paper analyses the barriers that need to be understood and addressed if citizen access to government data is to become a more widespread reality. It starts by recognising that, for individuals to access the data that is held about them or other public sector data, two groups of resources must be available: the data itself, and the other resources - particularly technology - to access that data.

Freedom of information legislation is reviewed, but appears to have had a relatively limited effect on citizen access. Finally, a model of both access and use is presented that helps to understand the broad range of factors that affect the interaction between citizens and government data.

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Educator's guide

Synopsis questions

  1. What different views do governments hold about public sector data? [part A]
  2. What resources do citizens require in order to access government data? [part B]
  3. What is the 'digital divide'? What are its dimensions? How are governments attempting to close it? [part B]
  4. What is 'freedom of information' legislation? How does it vary between countries? [part C]
  5. What other resources do citizens need in order to make use of government data? [part D] 

Development questions

  1. Can IT solve problems of citizen access to and use of government data?
  2. Will the digital divide ever be closed? In the most wired countries, should governments more focus more on the majority who have IT access or on the minority who do not?
  3. In the UK Public Records Office, some of the oldest data is that from William the Conqueror's Domesday Book, recording England's national assets in the late 11th century. Over 900 years later, it can still be accessed and read. What fate awaits government data being recorded electronically today? What should government do about this?
  4. Analyse freedom of information legislation in relation to the access factors outlined in parts A and B.
  5. Imagine you are running a community development programme. How much of a priority would you give to data access and to IT access initiatives?