BIS dissolves public data corporation

The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills has dissolved the Public Data Corporation while its confused policy Cabinet joint Office initiative team works out how to make open data workable.

Cabinet Office rushed out a revamped Open Data strategy on 29 November, “delivering on its commitment to establish a Public Data Corporation”.

BIS had already established the Public Data Corporation as a private company on 11 November 2010. But the company had laid dormant for a year while the departments and the Local Public Data Panel worked out how to get an HM data-set free-for-all round the vast bellies of such comfortable institutions as the Ordnance Survey, Land Registry and Met Office*.

Then BIS struck the Public Data Corporation off the company register on 31 January, the day the Cabinet Office failed to publish responses to its Public Data Corporation consultation, an initiative that drew flack over plans to charge the public for access to public data.

What it did do on that day was publish responses to the less substantial Making Open Data Real consultation, while Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude told big knobs at the World Bank how vested interests made transparency tricky but that people power was ensuring the future would be open.

But what would ensure government data would be open? Cue Sir Tim Berners Lee and Nigel Shadbolt, poster boys for all things webby, whose association can be assured to guarantee a warm reception for any government initiative, no matter how hastily drawn.

Maude effectively promised the compelling duo an Open Data Institute (sort of like a semantic web thing) a little more than a year after he binned the Semantic Web Institute (sort of like an open data thing) they had been hastily promised by the last Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Rhinoceroses

But the Open Data Institute will have nothing to do with the Public Data Corporation, which is now closed, and to which the Cabinet Office still has a firm commitment though BIS is still working out the detail of how exactly it will be constituted when it is again reconstituted.

The Institute will apparently do research into the sorts of technologies and issues that will ultimately define the parameters with which the Public Data Corporation will work. It may consider such thorny questions as how to deal with the money grabbers who threaten to undermine not only the government’s Public Open Data policy but the very World Wide Web our dear, dear Sir Tim invented.

That still leaves the grubby business of open data – the money matters – to be worked out at BIS. With Ordnance Survey, Land Registry and Met Office round the table it will be like negotiating reduced grazing rights with Rhinoceroses.

The open data ITerati has been working on the question of what to do about these heavies under the official tutelage of the Cabinet Office ever since the last government set up the Data Panel in January 2010. A big question has always been whether BIS even “gets IT”, and even if it does whether the heavies leave it any room for manoeuvre.

The same question has slowed up progress of the Cabinet Office’s other radically liberalising IT initiative, that of open standards. In that case vested interests at the BIS-owned British Standards Institution have been trying to block progress.

Dieting rhinoceroses

The most recent thinking on the open data plans suggest there is very little room for manoeuvre. BIS plans to host a Data Strategy Board that will commission a Public Data Group to act as an umbrella to the heavies – known as trading funds.

Depending on who you talk to, PDG will be knocking these Rhinoceroses into shape – getting them used to more meagre diets – or paying them for public data the government then makes available to the public for free. The latter is the official BIS line.

Only in Whitehall could such a clever arrangement of patronage have been devised: Cabinet Office gets to say it has delivered on its open data strategy by making public data free to the public, the heavies get to make more money, while BIS successfully fortifies them against reality as constituted rather inconveniently for vested interests in Sir Tim’s World Wide Web.

The government will presumably also now be paying the trading funds in addition to funding them. This is apparently designed to help them get used to working more efficiently in a digitized world. What it more likely means is they still plan to make more money flogging public data than they get paid by the government to liberate it.

As for exactly how the Public Data Corporation, or Group or whatever, will be constituted, no-one yet knows. We will at least be told before BIS/Cabinet Office publish the responses they received to the Public Data Corporation Consultation, which might just complicate matters too much were they to get out sooner.

* And Companies House, which is also one of the official Trading Funds. Until BIS dissolved the company, if you want to look in its filings for information on what the department was doing to make public data free for the public you had to pay Companies House for it.

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