Is the door on #OpenData opening or closing?

She left the door open by H Kopp Delaney

On Tuesday evening I was “in conversation” with Jonathan Raper (a.k.a. @MadProf, very apposite IMHO) at the British Computer Society arguing, agreeing and venting on the topic “Open Data and the PDC: Whose data is it anyway and who pays for it?

As most readers will or at least should know, the Cabinet Office are consulting at the moment for views on “Making Open Data Real” and “Data Policy for a Public Data Corporation“. I started out by setting out what I thought were the key points of these two interlinked consultations trying to be as neutral as I could, this short slide deck hopefully provides a good start for anyone who hasn’t read the full documents. Jonathan followed with his own perspectives of how the thinking re OpenData and the PDC was flawed by a lack of vision of the long term infrastructure investment needed around OpenData, his slides are here.

I think we both agreed that opening up as much non personal government data as possible is a good thing. Me, because of the potential democratic gain that comes from transparency and accountability and Jonathan, because he sees a great opportunity for new information services and businesses to flourish on the back of this flood of data. My skepticism on the size of the new economy generated via startups and Open Data is well known and does not need repeating here, suffice it to say that the Treasury appears to share my doubts and that grains of evidence to support Jonathan’s view have been difficult to find (I look forward to being proved wrong on this).

Jonathan wants to extend the free release of financial, performance, transport and other non personal departmental data derived from operations to include the data created by the Trading Funds that are being considered for inclusion in the Public Data Corporation. I am uncertain that the lost revenue from making the data free would be offset by either some significant further democratic gain or the new business opportunities.

It is a shame that the two consultations have been interlinked because the good stuff in the Open Data consultation may well be tarnished and confused by the flawed consultation on “data policy” (a euphemism for pricing and licensing) for the PDC. The PDC consultation looks to me as if the decisions have already been taken and it is going to be pretty much “same old same old”. OS, Land Registry and Met Office will be merged into a holding company with policies on pricing and licensing harmonised as much as possible across the three (which will be quite challenging because as businesses and data providers they have very different profiles). The big opportunities to consider radical change such as restricting them to collecting and supplying raw data only, moving towards a utility model, outsourcing major parts of their function or creating a custodianship franchise that is retendered every 7-10 years were all excluded from the consultation. Why? Because the PDC has to capable of “attracting external investment” (another euphemism for full or partial privatisation). On the plus side the PDC consultation does talk about a continuous process of releasing more data from the PDC businesses as Open Data, I wonder whether that will fall by the wayside in the name of attracting external investment.

In contrast, the Open Data consultation has some very good stuff on an enhanced right to access data, the use of machine readable formats and open standards and releasing dirty and early rather than spending time and money on trying to get perfect data out there. The bit that worries me is the section on innovation and economic growth

“Open Data can be a driver of economic growth.  A new market for public service information will thrive if data is freely available in a standardised format for use and re-use, particularly in the life sciences; population data mining and risk profiling; consumer technologies; and media sectors. At present the market for information on public services is highly underdeveloped. Open Data across government and public services would allow a market in comparative analytics, information presentation and service improvement to flourish.  This new market will attract talented entrepreneurs and skilled employees, creating high value-added services for citizens, communities, third sector organisations and public service providers, developing auxiliary jobs and driving demand for skills.”

This seems to be a triumph of optimism over evidence with only some rather loose examples of current best practice cited. In the case of the GI industry and the AGI report quoted, I don’t think that any of the growth in the market size that was predicted was dependent upon the release of OS OpenData or any other government Open Data. I am aware that OS recently commissioned a study on the economic benefits of releasing of OS OpenData, to date that study has not been published nor has it been referenced within the best practice section of the consultation. Hopefully we will get to see the results soon, after all under the principles of transparency espoused by the government we ought to be considering all of the available evidence in this process of consultation.

The consultation goes on to ask the question:

Innovation with Open Data: to what extent is there a role for government to stimulate enterprise and market making in the use of Open Data?”

Elsewhere the consultation seeks opinions on whether government has a role in stimulating or supporting innovation. My answer to both of these questions is “No, No, No!”

Surely by now we have learnt that government does not do business or innovation very well. Who remembers the telephone service when it was run as part of the Post Office? That was government doing business in the technology sector. For all of its faults, BT is a vastly better business for being freed from the constraints and culture of the Civil Service. Surely a Tory government gets that? What are they thinking of?

“It is possible that investment will be required to equip PDC organisations with the infrastructure and resources to make accessing its data easy and cost-effective forusers. The business model for the PDC will need to consider the most effective way of meeting those investment needs, within the broader objectives for a PDC”

I am stunned to find myself, an old soft liberal lefty type, saying this but the Government needs to pay a bit more attention to its Tea Party wing on this topic not invest more money in building the infrastructure that the private sector will build if it really believes that the market exists for adding value to government information. Just release the data in the rawest form possible and at the lowest possible cost and let the market get on with it. Michael Cross wrote an excellent piece on this theme in yesterday’s Telegraph

“The consultation enthuses about the opportunities the corporation will have for developing “new, innovative ways of making data and information available”. Perhaps. But monolithic Whitehall-created corporations do not have a strong track record of innovation, and creating one seems an anomalous step by a Conservative government committed to localism.

If we’re serious about the potential of open data, let’s do it properly. Central government could enforce the new philosophy on existing public bodies without establishing new ones. The funding gap could be filled by central funds, user charges (for example property developers paying for changes to maps) and by doing fewer things to start with.

This means getting out of the commercial sector entirely. After all, the state no longer tries to earn revenues by building telephones and ships: what makes it think it can do so at the cutting edge of the knowledge economy?”

I think that the fundamental principles behind the Open Data policy are pretty good, even if this government may be doing the right things for the wrong reasons. We need to encourage government to open the door a bit further and to keep out of the added value chain that it believes will generate economic growth through innovation. We won’t do that by burning energy and enthusiasm trying to prise the Trading Funds’ data out of the PDC, leave that battle for another day.

Whatever your opinion, if you care about this stuff you should take time to read the docs and respond to the consultations.

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