What is public sector information?

The following post is an excerpt from my thesis entitled Linked open data for public sector information.
Access to proceedings of the public sector is a fundamental underpinning of democracy. “Quality of public discussion would be significantly impoverished without the nourishment of information from public authorities” [1]. Moreover, economic and research activities in the private sector would be vastly impoverished if public sector information was kept concealed within the public sector. Reuse of public sector information in the private sector is a pivotal goal of its disclosure.
The disclosure of public sector information constitutes the subject matter of my thesis. In this blog post I try to delineate the scope of the domain described in the thesis by providing its basic conceptualization, along with lexical and extensional definitions of the concepts involved. To cater for this goal, this introductory post is concerned with definitions, describing what the concept of “public sector information” covers.
First, how can the borders of the public sector be circumscribed? Boundaries of the public sector are demarcated by private ownership. The institutions the public sector consists of are not private property [2, p. 5]. Instead, the public sector is publicly owned.
Other definitions of the public sector employ the viewpoints of policy control or financial control. A common way of how to give a definition to the public sector in law is to use an extensional definition enumerating the public bodies that fall within its scope.
However, the boundary between public and private sector is getting blurry, since a lot of the functions traditionally performed by public bodies have been outsourced within public-private partnerships. The public sector may also start to take on some characteristics of the private sector, such as the models of finance management.
The public sector is constituted of public bodies. Public body is an institution with legal subjectivity that belongs to the public sector. It is set up under law by the state or other public sector body. Public bodies are established for a specific purpose of meeting the needs in the general interest. They do not have a commercial character and so the majority of their budgets is funded from tax revenue [3, p. 55]. Among the public bodies that are deemed to be most important from the perspective of the data they produce are offices of cadaster, mapping agencies, statistical offices, or company registrars [4, p. 10].
Public bodies produce public sector information, or public data, which is the subject matter of this chapter. UK Public data transparency principles offer a working definition of “public data”. Public data is thought of as “the objective, factual, non-personal data on which public services run and are assessed, and on which policy decisions are based, or which is collected or generated in the course of public service delivery”. It is usually a by-product of the delivery of functions of public sector bodies, which makes it serve as an official public record as well [5]. The term “public sector data” is in most contexts used in the same way as “government data”, and can be thus treated as synonymous.
Given the generic definition of public sector information, enumerating all of the types of public data would be unnecesary. Instead, a few prototypical examples will be mentioned. In 2010, a survey by Socrata identified several high-value categories of data. Among the top-ranked categories were data about public safety, revenues and expenditures, and education. The most commonly used data categories in publicdata.eu, a catalogue of Europe’s public data, are “Finance and budgeting”, “Social questions”, and “Education and communication”. Among the other frequently mentioned types of public data are statistical or geospatial data, the types that are particularly important from the perspective of their reuse by businesses. Paul Clarke sorted out public data into 4 categories:
  • Historical data, such as statistics
  • Planning data, including legal regulations in progress
  • Infractructural data, for example, reference concepts such as postcodes
  • Operational data, covering real-time streaming data, e.g., traffic situation
Governments collect data for a plethora of topics, some of which may look obscure, such as the statistics of people injured by vending machines in the US [6]. Nevertheless, collection of all of the datasets should be justified by their function for fulfiling the requirements of the public task and by their contribution as a source of improvements, such as for increasing the safety of vending machines in the aforementioned example. The scope of public sector information follows the function of the public sector.


  1. MENDEL, Toby. Freedom of information: an internationally protected human right. Comparative Media Law Journal. 2003, no. 1. Also available from WWW: http://www.juridicas.unam.mx/publica/rev/comlawj/cont/1/cts/cts3.htm
  2. LIENERT, Ian. Where does the public sector end and the private sector begin? [online]. June 1st, 2009 [cit. 2012-04-29]. IMF working paper, no. 09/122. Available from WWW: http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/wp/2 009/wp09122.pdf
  3. The Council of the European Communities. Council Directive 93/37/EEC of 14 June 1993 concerning the coordination of procedures for the award of public works contracts. Official Journal of the European Communities. August 9th, 1993, vol. 36, L 199, p. 54 — 84. Also available from WWW: http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.d o?uri=CELEX:31993L0037:EN:PDF. ISSN 0378-6978.
  4. VICKERY, Graham. Review of the recent developments on PSI re-use and related market developments [online]. Final version. Paris, 2011 [cit. 2012-04-19]. Available from WWW: http://ec.europa.eu/information_society/policy/psi/docs/pdfs/report/psi_final_version_formatted.docx
  5. American Library Association. Key principles of government information [online]. Chicago, 1997 — 2012 [cit. 2012-04-07]. Available from WWW: http://www.ala.org/advocacy/govinfo/keyprinciples
  6. LOVLEY, Erika. The government has a database for most everything. Politico [online]. June 24th, 2009 [cit. 2012-04-07]. Available from WWW: http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0609/24118.html

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