New apps could bring a revolution in consumer choice

Wider access to personal data will make it easier for customers to know when they're losing out
  • @MattChorley

The omniscient Big Brother state, where multinational companies know more about your life than you do, could be about to crumble.

Ministers want to see hundreds of new websites and mobile phone apps to allow people to get online access to all the information held on loyalty cards, bank statements, medical records and Whitehall databases.

It is claimed that the new "open society" could save lives and improve public services. Never again will you struggle to find somewhere to park, miss an appointment, or get ripped off. In theory, at least.

The Midata project already has the backing of major retailers, banks and energy firms to release personal information in electronic form that could be uploaded to price-checking sites. A White Paper due to be launched in May will set out further plans to put public and private sector data in the hands of individuals to plan their lives, choose schools or GPs and save hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds.

If it works – which is by no means guaranteed – it could become a defining motif of the coalition government, which has placed great emphasis on the power of transparency. Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, will this week herald the creation of an "information marketplace", arguing the release of "personal information will empower each individual".

In a speech to the World Bank in Washington tomorrow he will say: "I have no doubt as we become increasingly data-rich we will all look back and wonder how we ever tolerated such collective ignorance in the past. For the first time, the technology exists to make the demand for greater openness uncontainable, irresistible."

The economic value of public sector data could be as high as £16bn, Mr Maude will say. Already there are 47 app developers working with live train time information. Parkopedia, a UK firm, uses council data to tell drivers where there are parking spaces and operates in 25 countries. Other business opportunities will be created by the scheme. The next big step will be increasing the information available about residential care homes, which ministers argue will help drive up standards.

Consumers have the legal right to request access to personal information through the Data Protection Act, but it is rarely in an electronic form. While a voluntary agreement on releasing data in a manageable format is being pursued, the Government has not ruled out legislation if progress is "unreasonably slow". Ministers are at pains to stress that no one will be forced to share or access their personal data.

Companies involved in the project include Barclaycard, Mastercard, HSBC and RBS, the John Lewis Partnership, Aimia, the firm behind Nectar cards, the power companies Centrica and Southern and Scottish Energy, and the mobile phone provider Three. Consumer groups such as Citizens Advice and Which? are also involved

In 2010, there were more than 16m Nectar and Boots points cards and 15m Tesco Clubcards in circulation, containing detailed information about shopping habits. Every year, 30 million mobile phones are sold in the UK but three-quarters of people are on the wrong mobile phone contract, wasting them almost £200 a year.

Until now, the NHS has only provided detailed data on the performance of hospitals, but in the next few months, patients will be able to see how services and waiting times differ between GPs' surgeries. In a world first, by 2015, everyone will have access to their medical records online.

The Government will also begin collecting "consumer insight" from users of public services, from ranking the quality of schools, hospitals and councils in a model similar to the TripAdvisor website, to making better use of formal complaints to track trends and expose failures.