Open Data - an alternative view

Open Data - an alternative view

By admin On 12 July 2012 In Professional

The launch of the Government’s latest Open Data white paper - Unleashing the Potential on 2 July marks a new and more mature phase in the battle to release Government information and change the culture of the public sector. 

The Building Trust section for example takes the sincerely held counter arguments which are protective of personal data security and deals with them fairly and respectfully without losing any of the energy and evangelism of the greater policy objectives.

Likewise too one can discern an evolution in the thinking and a greater appreciation of the information ecosystem by policymakers. There is a glossarial distinction between “core reference data” and “public data”: the former references critical datasets upon which hinge vast swathes of the information economy (e.g. definitive addressing and mapping). It is these datasets from which Government itself derives revenues (albeit substantially from itself) and which have poisoned years of debate about Open Data and compromised Government's own policy integrity.

The transparency and accountability arguments around Open Data seem irrefutable. The less explicitly expressed agenda to stop public sector bodies developing applications and websites which the private sector and the market will do much more cheaply seems also “a good thing”.  But the economic innovation argument for Open Data is not yet won – which is why the Open Data cavaliers around the Cabinet Office and the roundheads around Treasury and BIS (that strangely conflicted department) continue their civil war, albeit camouflaged within the policy-speak of the white paper.

And here we really do need to move on to the next phase. The alliance of politicians, policymakers, academics and agitators who are driving the Open Data agenda need to understand at least in the short term the nature of scale information publishing and development activity (not to mention the state of the public sector itself in terms of finances plus IT systems and culture). Throwing up applications based on some public datasets which are not sustained, quality enhanced and updated may be a stimulus to further innovation but it may also seem rather economically thin in the short term. Data.gov.uk is a wonderful barometer of the lip service spent to data release by Government departments but as a working resource for business it is less than useful (hence to be fair Government’s attachment to its “beta” status in year three of its existence).

The fact is that data from Government, to be truly useful for business growth, sometimes (that sometimes is important for those of you who have commented so far) needs to be carefully curated, maintained and sustained during its life cycle. Partners in the private sector also need service level support in their future use of it. One of the great innovation stories around public data in the last ten years is the  £100 million industry which has grown up around environmental due diligence checks in the conveyancing market.  There the Environment Agency, stimulated originally by its Wider Markets ambitions, released datasets which the private sector has turned into a £100 million industry. The Agency itself derives several millions of pounds from selling the services to support this data, which in turn enables it to support the development and release of further datasets. In a spectacular example of the law of unintended consequences, this £100 million might not have come into existence in the Government’s new model, as the Environment Agency would not have been economically incentivised to do what it has done!

Public sector data does not self-aggregate, self-quality check, self distribute nor is a public body obliged to underpin private industry with the service level agreements upon which serious businesses depend.  When the Department of Health made the policy decision last year to release Prescriptions Data it committed itself to some £millions of development work. It forsook monies from the Pharma companies each of which were prepared to pay six figure sums for regular access to the data. This decision was taken for a social good – and no doubt long term innovation benefits which may indeed become manifest. But the principal users of this data, one year on, are the very same Pharmas whose revenues have been denied to the Department for further data development work.

All of which is not to say that over the very long term the release of public sector information will not stimulate the economic growth which Government and the rest of us are looking for. Nor that the shorter-term transparency and accountability arguments are other than persuasive.  But scale growth in the short term – and the examples that will prove Francis Maude’s case to Treasury – will often come from well curated, substantive Government datasets for which the private sector will require continued support in exploiting and developing. That's is why the issue of the Trading Funds is of such significance (it is also why they are Trading Funds!)

Paying occasionally for such data need not always be perceived as an insult to democracy. Deciding to swallow the costs may be a social good and, in the case of Government’s own “core reference data” (addressing and mapping), does have a compelling economic argument.  But these are grown up pragmatic decisions not an ideological war fought between Government departments and either their public agitators or their Whitehall insider proxies.

Government’s latest white paper bears the scars of these arguments but it is a genuine and committed effort to shift us all along a road to greater social and economic good.

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2 Comments

  • admin

    30 October 2018 Curation et al
    Shane

    You and I have disagreed on this before, so you wont mind me saying again that I disagree strongly with your point that
    "The fact is that data from Government, to be truly useful for business growth, needs to be carefully curated, maintained and sustained during its life cycle"

    That sounds like a very expensive set of tasks to me, and saying that may put off budgetholders with very little in the pot from releasing data. In fact in many cases it is much better for the data holders to just simply release the data and sit back and listen. By all means provide a feedback loop.

    If that loop is silent, then there probably isn't much call for the data - currently - so just leave it there and move on. Do the same lo-cost process with the next tranche.

    But if there is feedback, then they should listen and consider it and see evaluate the best way forwards.

    We need to be aware in these straightened times that we shouldnt be putting off the data holders from actually releasing data.
  • admin

    30 October 2018 more on innovation process please
    I think you are right - there are costs associated with curating data and the market(s) won't properly emerge without taking account of them - but theres more to innovation too and we need to be better at bringing communities to the markets and exploring the various roles that are at play in information economies. Who can curate?publish? Broker?

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