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Government data, Open data

If devolution killed national data, what would Scottish independence do?

The quality of government data is quite possible the last thing on most voters’ minds when Scotland decides whether to leave the UK this Thursday. But, believe it or not, it matters. I wrote this piece back at the Guardian on devolution and open government data. An independent Scotland would probably be the ned of data for the whole of Britain.

I’d love to know what you think. Obviously, this piece was written in a slightly different context, but the point still stands.

Are you British or Scottish? Do you live in the UK or England & Wales?

It matters because statistics – the way we actually have any idea about where we live – are increasingly not available for the UK as a nation.

And as it looks possible that devolution could become independence for Scotland, we could be seeing the end of the UK in data too.

Love or loathe devolution, this matters – especially if you care for open data.

How does the UK split up? You’d think anyone who has studied geography here would know the answer, but there is still confusion. When we published this map of young adults who still live at home, one usercommented:

“”Britain’s” young adults? and the map shows Scotland, Wales and England. Not bothered about Northern Ireland, The isle of Man and the Channel Islands, then – or are they not part of Britain?”

Young people living at home

Young adults still living at home mapped

For anyone not completely au fait with the geography, this is how the nation splits up. The United Kingdom is divided into England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Channel Islands, incidentally, are a British Crown dependency and not part of the UK.

Britain is just England, Wales and Scotland – not Northern Ireland.

And the whole nation is divided up into what the Office for National Statistics (but not all of our users) calls local authorities, which manage local services in each area. If you want to see variations across the country, then that is the minimum local breakdown needed. Of course, many statistics are published at that local level and for the whole UK – unemployment for instance. But often that is no longer the case.

Four separate statistics bodies operate in almost blissful independence of one another: the Office for National Statistics, the Scottish Government,StatsWales and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency.

Take crime, for instance. Until recently the Home Office published something called the British Crime Survey, which surveyed thousands of people about their personal experiences of crime.

But in the late 1980s it stopped covering Scotland – where it was replaced by the Scottish Crime and Justice Survey. Now England and Wales has the Crime Survey for England and Wales and Northern Ireland has anirregular crime survey of its own.

The rationale is that because Scotland has its own criminal system, it’s not comparable. Yet the UN manages to compare a variety of crimes from completely different countries for its annual crime survey and there are more differences between entirely separate nations in crime, say, than in a devolved single nation.

And the result? We rarely see studies comparing crime in London, say, with Glasgow?

The census is another example – split into England & Wales, Scotland andNorthern Ireland. Recorded every ten years, this is arguably the UK’s most important dataset, yet published at different times and for different regional breakdowns.

But even for less controversial data, each week brings separate releases from separate places.

In the last month, the National Statistics gateway shows 98 government releases are available for the UK as a whole. But how many of those are broken down? Most are the big figures such as GDP, if you want a breakdown even at country level, (ie, England & Wales, Scotland, etc) then there are 12 releases. And only another seven are available at local authority and county level – which is the minimum breakdown you need for any kind of regional rigour. Only one was valuable at the really granular “super output area”: the child tax credit statistics for 2010 from the HMRC.

That’s one dataset which is two years old.

Click the links below and you will get different releases for different parts of the UK, each appearing to have very little coordination with the other.

England and Wales
England
Scotland
Northern Ireland.

So, in one 30-day period, Northern Ireland has seen releases onpopulation and women; Scotland has published child immunisation statistics and reconviction rates; Wales has put out exam results andhealth statistics. Meanwhile, England has published School admission appeals and drug treatment figures and museum activity.

The argument is beyond devolution of power or different statistical fiefdoms. After all, not everything is national – but when you are publishing equivalent figures for different parts of the UK, why not coordinate them? Why not publish the same census details on the same day – instead of different figures at different times?

The answer is probably resources – and a gradual parting of the statistical ways as different organisations produces the statistics wanted at the devolved government level.

In fact, it is often easier to get across statistics from European countries via Eurostat now than it is to get figures for the whole of the UK at a local level. That is because Eurostat has a single operation to combine data from across the European Union into single accessible datasets by coordinating all the national statistics agencies. The UK, with increasingly disparate data sources, needs that now. And it’s kind of what we expect from the Office for National Statistics. The title says it all.

Yes, it would cost money. But if things carry on as they are now, the long-term effect is that England is compared only to England; Scotland to Scotland; Wales to Wales; and Northern Ireland to Northern Ireland.

Maybe, in a devolved nation, that’s what we want. But it raises a bigger question, which is pretty fundamental for all of us: if the UK ceases to exist as a statistical entity, then does it still exist as a country?

About Simon Rogers

Data journalist, writer, speaker. Author of 'Facts are Sacred', from Faber & Faber and a new range of infographics for children books from Candlewick. Edited and launched the Guardian Datablog. Now works for Google in California as Data Editor

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