Government starts publishing spending data

The UK Government has begun publishing details of where our money goes, although the data are currently in a format which will be unfathomable to most people.

The Combined On-line Information System (Coins - Geddit?) is used by the Treasury to collect financial data from across the public sector.

Under the Con-Dem coalition agreement that pledges to "remove the cloak of secrecy" from government and "throw open the doors of public bodies", all new items of central government spending over £25,000 detailed by Coins will be published online here, by November.

By January of next year, all new items of local government spending over £500 will also be published on a council-by-council basis, the Government said.

It claims the release of Coins data is, "just the first step in the Government's commitment to data transparency on Government spending".

The database contains millions of rows of data in large files and the data held within the files is complex. The Government admits that making sense of the files will "require some degree of technical competence and expertise in handling and manipulating large volumes of data".

It is likely that these data will be most easily used by organisations that have the relevant expertise, rather than by individuals.

Such institutions will be able to process and present the data in a way that is more accessible to the general public. The Government also promised to make subsets of data from the Coins database available in more accessible formats by August 2010.

On institution entrusted with the task of ferreting through the data is the Open Knowledge Foundation. Director Rufus Pollock said: "The release of this data marks another milestone in the opening up of public data - in which the UK leads the way.

"While this is by no means the end of the line, this material is substantially more detailed than anything previously available and is a major advance for transparency of public finances. With our Where Does My Money Go? project we’ve already been working to make spending understandable to the general public and this new data is essential to realizing the project’s goal of showing exactly where each pound of your taxes goes."

The Government reckons the move is, "the most detailed UK public expenditure data ever released". It shows it is "committed to being more transparent and open in publishing information about the money it spends." Until it starts getting into a pickle, at least.

Chief Secretary Danny Alexander confessed: "This data is complex, but this is major step forward and shows we are delivering on our promise to make this Government more open and transparent while ensuring we deliver value for money for the taxpayer."