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"Burying" Data Until Convenient Undermines The UK's Open Data Efforts

BY Jessica McKenzie | Monday, January 27 2014

They don't have to bury it forever, just long enough (Marshall Astor - Food Fetishist/Flickr)

Revelations that the UK government held back crucial information about the effects of alcohol pricing on health, until a policy decision about it had gone by, have left some questioning the United Kingdom's open data program.

At stake was a controversial decision on setting a minimum pricing for alcohol. David Cameron pushed for minimum pricing in 2012 but the initiative was scrapped a year later. At the time, Jeremy Browne, a Home Office minister, explained to the House of Commons that they lacked “concrete evidence that its introduction would be effective in reducing harms… without penalising [sic] people who drink responsibly.”

That evidence came in the form of a draft report from the University of Sheffield that explained the benefits that would come with a minimum pricing scheme. That report was not released to the public until it was announced that minimum pricing would not be implemented.

This has observers crying foul at the ministers responsible and the alcohol industry.

The investigation by the British Medical Journal that found the reports supporting minimum pricing had been “buried” also found that ministers and government officials met with drinks firms and supermarket representatives on numerous occasions.

Their actions have been called “deplorable” and “shabby,” although a spokesperson for the Department of Health denied that anything “untoward” occurred.

All the same, it opens up a line of questioning about open data and the importance of timeliness in addition to ease of access.

Dr. Sarah Wollaston, a former Green Party, now Conservative, Member of Parliament, responded to the events: "Inconvenient data should never be suppressed, because that distorts the evidence base for treatments and puts lives at risk...Is this the way for government to lead by example on the need for open data and what message does it send to the NHS, academia and Pharma on transparency?"

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