No one who has observed the public sector information space for a decade or more can fail to be excited by the present fervour and ferment of the Open Data movement.
Two Prime Ministers in succession have led from the front in advocating the opening up of information created at the public expense. Tim Berners Lee has added a sprinkle of international stardust to the Government's enthusiastic drive towards Transparency, Accountability and Innovation (the three leitmotifs driving the present enthusiasm). And some civil servants, many previously the epitome of Sir Humphrey-ish discretion/obstruction (depending on one’s point of view) are falling over backwards to catch the wind of the transparency rhetoric.
Most vocal in the foreground are the guerrillas of the Open Data frontier - the hackers, the ideologues, the innovators genuinely attempting to advance the frontiers in the name of democracy, efficiency and the citizen. People whose disdain for all forms of "data hugging" occasionally mask an undeclared self interest and commercial ambitions of their own. Some of them too have to eat, after all!
For here lies a potential contradiction. Two things are characteristic of our emerging networked world. The first is the need to bring order to information chaos by providing tools (primarily search based on normalized metadata). The second is the way the network tends to accentuate the way in which these branded gateways become natural monopolies or duopolies (the former are always grateful to have one weaker player still functioning!). Google and Facebook in the consumer space have their counterparts in any number of niches in the professional and business to business sectors.
And so it may come to pass in the public sector information space. From the present ferment must emerge business models which are stable, sustainable and self supporting. An illustrative mash up might be hugely innovative but you cannot base a public utility or commercial service upon it alone. Serious services require to be paid for. There are only three payment models: unspecific tax funding (the least democratic and transparent of all), statutory registrations income (hardly democratic but at least directly related to usage) and commercial sales of services (crudely Darwinian but correlated to where the benefits are felt).
What is emerging will still be a mixed model of public information service provision. Base data will be freely available but the added value of aggregating it, keeping it up-to-date and adding analytical tools on top of it will have to be paid for. And it is at these critical junctions of information trafficflow where the new duopolists will attempt to build their businesses. No bad thing - a tribute to the Innovations agenda - but not an Open highway.
Government itself seems already to have decided that, despite its rhetoric, base public utilities such as detailed mapping and postcode information will be charged for, even if "light" versions are available for R&D. Other utilities will be decided on a case by case basis - a trade off of political sensitivity, financial exigency and buggers mess.
What we predict is the emergence of a public information landscape with mixed support and payment models – and as many blockages to the availability of quality information services as before (though we will find new names for them – such as “services”, “software”, “aggregation” and” tools”).
It may not be the nirvana of the new information evangelists but it is the law of unintended consequences: an M25 created to reduce the traffic, but causing more car journeys (usage and utility) and traffic snarl ups.