Open Data - the pursuit of Alchemy!

Open Data - the pursuit of Alchemy!

By admin On 18 December 2011 In Professional

In mediaeval Europe in its darkest days, the pursuit of Alchemy was the dream of statesmen. Plus ca change!

The European Commission has announced its Open Data Strategy for Europe. Announcing the strategy Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes put forward proposals which “will turn government data into gold”!

Regulations will be introduced to require public bodies to provide public sector information for free re use, and to do so in intelligent formats so that developers can create linkages with other datasets to build innovative services and products.  This new strategy is expected to deliver a €40 billion boost to the EU’s economy each year.

At the same time, the UK Government previewed its proposed Open Data strategic framework in the Chancellor's Autumn statement, following on from its consultation exercises around Making Open Data Real  and the Public Data Corporation. An Open Data Institute to establish and maintain information management standards – apt reward for Professor Shadbolt’s doughty advocacy; a Digital Strategy Board to assess and provide governance around the nation’s core data assets; and a Public Data Group, which will drive efficiencies from the data Trading Funds (Ordnance Survey, Land Registry, Met Office and maybe more to follow).

At least that is what we hope is intended - there is much yet that remains to be defined.  But credit where credit is due – this is a potentially sensible framework to work out a uniquely Anglo-Saxon compromise to a complex set of  economic and information management, not to mention political, issues.  And to eschew the ideology emanating from the same policy architects who gave Europe the common currency among other recipes for economic growth.

The truth is that whilst there might be enormous potential in the release of public sector information, it is not always the raw data that stimulates growth. Nor, whether the value is in raw data or added value data, is it cost and pain free to deliver to the private sector. This is not to argue it shouldn’t be done, but only that we should be reasonably pragmatic in our expectations.

Many of the public sector datasets that are likely to stimulate economic growth are carefully curated aggregated datasets from several public bodies – they cost money to create, maintain and disseminate.  The governance of these datasets, where they exist, and the creation of new ones which will underpin the growth which the European Commissioner fondly imagines will just happen, might be one of the most important contributions of the new Digital Strategy Board.

This is a more sophisticated strategy than asking the public sector to finance the exposure of more and more raw data, no matter how incidental, quirky, or unevidenced based the demand.  National information infrastructure should be treated as seriously as physical infrastructure for which at least we acknowledge the necessity of long term planning (even if the results of that planning do not always encourage optimism).

This Government has embraced the Open Data policy so enthusiastically because it bolsters the accountability and efficiency agendas. Both these are worthy and necessary. But the arguments for Open Data as an economic growth driver are less clear than advocates can yet demonstrate. It is sometimes tempting to believe that the growth argument thrives (a) because few policymakers understand the realities of creating information products and services and (b) that, in the absence of any other growth strategy, it is helpful to talk up Open Data (especially if it is perceived as a no costs to the state activity).

The UK should continue to pursue a pragmatic approach to Open Data - by providing increased governance through the new Digital Strategy Board, driving efficiencies through the Public Data Group, and opening up data over time by improving information management practices and standards through the Open Data Institute.  But we should be pragmatic and unideological about where costs fall, and strive to identify strategic datasets, which will stimulate the economy.

Not all that glints in the present darkness is gold!

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  • admin

    30 October 2018 Re: your blog post
    Great post - I agree wholeheartedly. As there is no point repeating what has already been stated, I confine my contribution to the open data world to a simplified economic benefit calculator. See here:
    Merry Christmas,
  • admin

    30 October 2018 Open Data
    Again well said.
    There needs to be greater recognition not only of the cost to PSIH (direct cost and opportunity cost) but also that re-users need "security of supply" which contractual supply arrangements are more likely to provide than simply making everything free but which become unsustainable over the medium term due to drive to reduce public expenditure.

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