Open data: resist Sir Humphrey’s last stand

Time to open data and nip caveats and excuses in the bud, writes Michael Cross

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Sir Humphrey Appelby, played by Sir Nigel Hawthorne (1929 - 2001)
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Michael Cross
On 13 March 2012 11:53

You wait all year for a think tank to report on how government should embrace Big Data, then two do at once. Over the past week, both Demos and the Policy Exchange have published studies on the opportunities created by David Cameron’s pledge to create the world’s most transparent government.

One urges the government to get on with it; to create its promised “right to data” and let the private sector and concerned citizens do their best with it.

The other counsels caution - the transparency revolution will happen only when government departments are equipped with new IT systems to collect and disseminate accurate data, and civil servants and the general public educated to make sense of it.

Wonk-watchers will guess which philosophy emerged from which think tank. Anyone who has worked with government will guess which approach the civil service and wider public sector will find more congenial.

For readers new to the open data issue, this is about making use of the huge resources of taxpayer-funded databases - of geographical, environmental and demographic information - available for re-use. For building businesses (search-your ancestry firms) holding public bodies to account (organisations like MySociety) - or for government to run itself better (sharing a common list of postal addresses, rather than expending thousands of staff-hours discussing which part of HMG should pay which part of HMG for which part of HMG’s intellectual property).

The commercial possibilities can be counted in hundreds of billions; the dividend for better public administration likewise.

Francis Maude’s Cabinet office has committed itself to the principle of open public data, though it is still dithering over how to deal with public agencies such as Ordnance Survey which make their living trading semi-commercially.

Policy Exchange’s report deals briskly with this problem. It urges government to get on with the proposed right to data, which would mean free access for all comers to all data collected as part of a public body’s public task. So long as there is no direct damage to privacy or national security the state has no business with what happens next. 

This would mean no more charging for "core reference data" – maps, postcodes, timetables and statistics - which should form part of the national digital infrastructure. Other information activities should be sold off. Simples. The overall cost to the taxpayer? Minimal.

The Data Dividend, by Demos, on the other hand, warns that delivering on the transparency promise “is fraught with difficulties - practical, political and ethical.” It calls for more investment in technology, starting with hand-held terminals for front-line public sector workers, as well as data stores, modelled on the London Data Store. The report also calls for investments in analytic skills, beginning at school, and especially in the public services. Without this groundwork, it warns, big data will become a big disappointment.

Be assured these caveats will be seized upon - by Whitehall, by state-owned information trading agencies and by professions nervous about public scrutiny. “Yes, Minister, no one is more committed than I to open data - but first we need to ensure its accuracy and that the public can cope with it.” 

Campaigners for transparency and reform will want to nip these classic Sir Humphrey-isms in the bud.

Michael Cross was a founder of the Free our Data Campaign. He is currently news editor of the Law Society Gazette

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