User-friendly standards for Government spreadsheets

Government Digital Service

The Government Digital Service (GDS) is responsible for the digital transformation of government. It is part of the Cabinet Office and it runs GOV.UK, the best place to find government services and information. It focuses on making public services simpler and better, building platforms, ensuring government data is good data and helping departments with new technologies and digital services.

The challenge

In 2012, the Cabinet Office set up a consultation on the definition and mandation of open standards for software interoperability, data and document formats in government IT.

The cost of the government’s IT was considered too high and the way that government departments purchased IT has resulted in hundreds of different platforms operating across a landscape of disconnected, self-contained departments. There is a lack of interoperability between products and services making it difficult for users to transfer data easily across government, or for government to reuse components between different vendors and systems.

As part of this, GDS has been looking at how government can save money in business processes through the use of data standards and the interoperability they bring.

Register Dynamics was brought in to analyse and improve some of the key business processes across government in order to improve productivity through better data management and data re-use.

How we helped

Through user research and discussions with various teams across government, we discovered that people involved in the business processes relied heavily on the use of spreadsheets but that this was often a source of much discrepancy.

Spreadsheets were being thought of and treated like any other office productivity tool, and not like a data management tool. On GOV.UK alone, there were 31,121 files with spreadsheet extensions (like .ods, .xlsx or .xls) and 19,251 CSV files, many of which were not in the suggested tidy, tabular data format.

We established that attempting to move people away from using office tools to manage data was impractical and wouldn’t succeed because it doesn’t benefit indiviudal users. We instead proposed that it was important to be able to extract structured data from spreadsheets.

We therefore developed a tool, called the Metadata Standards Description Language to enable this. We created this new simple metadata language and designed a service to enable users to upload a spreadsheet and then describe the data within it. By making spreadsheets interoperable, the data becomes more valuable and opens up opportunities for multidimensional analysis and reuse.

The result

The GDS Data Standards team is currently talking to departments about their use of spreadsheets and these findings, to explore how consistency in extracting information can help to improve interoperability.

A write-up of our work has been shared on the Data in Government blog: Improving how we manage spreadsheet data.

The self-service web-based management tool we created establishes a way to set metadata standards and to extract data in a consistent way from spreadsheets. It also respects existing governance processes and supports the Cabinet Office’s mandate to improve software interoperability, data and document formats in government IT.