The Shakespearepublished last week may have had its element of bathos. There was for example no mention of the issue of national addressing which is fundamental to the national information debate. Yet the report may have pointed the way to reconciling Government’s own commercial interests and the demands of Open Data activists.
Access to “raw” public sector data is the gospel of the Open Data movement. But more pragmatic activists also understand that the social and economic benefits that will derive from releasing public sector data will depend on very long-term behavioural (and procurement) change. Well curated and supported national datasets may be more likely to provide the backbone of national infrastructure and drive business services in the shorter to medium term. (There is a reason why there are Trading Funds – by definition they represent some of the datasets most critical to economic activity and growth).
That is why Shakespeare has returned to the concept of National Core Reference Data. This isbut he has it done the service of making it a centrepiece of his independent review. And he has combined this with acknowledgement of the long-term economic benefits of the raw data approach by recommending a twin track approach to data release. Let many flowers bloom, he seems to be saying, but let’s also consciously shape the nation’s information strategy.
Open Data activists ought to have no difficulty with this. Government’s own commercial interests should never impede access to raw data. And in Shakespeare’s view, if charges are made then they ought to be made on the basis of what best serves the wider public good, and not just a Trading Fund's bottom line. They should also be transparently arrived at which means effective regulation. Government actually has a very well-developed regulatory infrastructure in this area, though the report has missed the opportunity to stress how important it will be to support it and give it teeth.
Shakespeare has turned the disadvantage of not being immersed for years in the public sector information debate to his advantage - he has seen the wood despite the trees. Release raw data – a long term project of cultural and procurement change. Regulate the custodians of core reference data properly – it is not difficult to be transparent about profits and investment. And then balance the broader interests of the nation in deciding where charges fall and who bears the burden of investment by defining core reference data infrastructure.