The seeming triumph of the Making Public Data Public disguises consequences and exposures for very many public bodies.
This will seem like the logical conclusion to a series of policy initiatives along a tripartite front. These include: the drive towards transparency in Government (from FOI onwards); the belief that public sector data can help drive innovation and growth within the knowledge economy (the CUPI Report and the Public Sector Information movement); and an enthusiasm for the liberating power of technology and social networks (Tom Watson's Power of Information Report). All leading inexorably to the PM's personal involvement last summer (and that of Berners Lee) and the Smarter Government agenda last autumn.
In the next few weeks Government is expected to pronounce upon the future of Ordnance Survey, the very touchstone of the old world of Government charging for and protecting its data.
History is always written backwards and in retrospect alternative historians of the future might of course be lucky enough to uncover a different agenda. For example the years of resistance from the “iron fist” of Treasury to releasing data for free or at marginal cost; pragmatic and tough-minded arguments that the upsides of such transparency were unproven; and a desire to hold on to the public sector's Trading Fund model. Cynically they might even suggest that the transformation of the iron fist into the “velvet glove” advocacy of a free/marginal cost data model was something to do with distracting attentions from MPs expenses (Berners Lee was invited in last May/June) and the run up to a general election campaign.
What should not be forgotten amidst all of this however is the very real conundrum faced by many public sector bodies and officials who have found themselves on the wrong side of history. Many have followed a succession of policy initiatives which has urged them to sweat their assets more effectively, to become more "commercial" in their attitudes and more efficient in their delivery (and here Wider Markets, Gershon, Operation Efficiency Programme provide an analogous policy stream to the transparency policy sequence quoted above). And reaching its true apogee in the concept of the Trading Funds.
Perhaps Making Public Data Public will achieve its objectives. Most probably so regarding transparency. Also, ironically, regarding data quality. "Data huggers” (Berners Lee’s own Sancho Panza, Professor Nigel Shadbolt, coined this memorable phrase) within Government ought to welcome it as quality issues will be more quickly addressed by exposing the data to inspection. Whether the economic growth argument will bear fruit, who can tell ? (a flotilla of Cambridge economists has not hitherto been able to convince Treasury , though they seem now to have convinced the ex-Chancellor PM). But the essence of innovation is to suck it and see.
It does however leave a hole in the public finances, and a breach in the whole Trading Fund model (not just Ordnance Survey). It will become hugely difficult in the emerging compliance landscape for public sector bodies to make money out of data and information.
Trading Funds will have to accelerate their model – as their private sector peers have been doing for some time – into building higher value adding services and software. And in doing so, the question will be posed more acutely than ever before: are they staging posts on the way to privatisation or critical examples of how to leverage intangible assets in the public sector?
It’s a question made more pressing by the removal of revenues which Making Public Data Public presages. And again by a growing movement not just to Free our Data but perhaps Free our Widgets as well!