News analysis

How serious is the government about open data?

Kathleen Hall

The government’s release of a new tranche of public datasets managed by the newly created Open Data Institute has been welcomed by industry. But what do the new commitments mean for citizens and businesses?

The release of public information as part of the government’s transparency drives appears to be gathering pace with the latest announcement of an Open Data Institute (ODI) - co-directed by web creator Tim Berners-Lee - which will receive £10m intended to help industry exploit the release of information. The government hopes that making data freely available for commercial use will stimulate growth and lead to public sector efficiency savings.

The ODI is to be funded by the Technology Strategy Board and will support a range of start-up and early-stage companies, micro-businesses and SMEs to exploit open data. The institute is also intended to promote the use of web data standards and technology and help SMEs with the skills to access procurement opportunities.

Professor Nigel Shadbolt will head the ODI alongside Berners-Lee. Shadbolt said the announcements will be a big boost to the UK economy, with some European reports valuing the contribution of unlocked data as high as £16bn. 

“People ask - where’s the quantative evidence for that value? But people also said that about the internet. I think there will be a lot unanticipated reuse. And the institute is in the centre of a lot of innovative micro-businesses and SMEs looking to do a lot of interesting things with this data,” he said.

The creation of the ODI follows plans under the previous government to open a Web Science Institute, intended to serve a similar purpose as the ODI and earmarked to receive £30m in funding. Shadbolt said he was disappointed by the decision to can the WSI, but is positive about the latest proposals.  “The Web Science Institute was a more research-oriented effort. What we have here in the form of the ODI is more focused," he said.

“The hope is that we will get matched funding for the work in the ODI and we will increase value by attracting other resources. We’re quite ambitious about what we can build from this."

But concerns have been raised around whether the government will make all its public datasets publicly available, or continue to charge individuals through executive agencies.

Jonathan Raper, CEO of the location-based services startup Placr, said the government must tackle issues around opening up all public datasets, such as pushing for the release of more Ordnance Survey datasets. Raper believes that as these agencies are funded by the taxpayer, individuals and organisations should not be asked to pay twice for public information. 

“Speaking as an SME, we need urgent action to rationalise all public information so we don’t have to pay government agencies. The government must overcome the arguments of bureaucrats running agencies in order to achieve that," he said.

However, Raper welcomed the release of transport data showing the running of trains and planned or real-time information at all 350,000 bus stops, along with plans for the Department for Transport to work with Network Rail and the transport industry to make real-time running data available from April 2012.

“This is fantastically useful. When London released its live bus information the number of apps for those services increased significantly and their price tripled because that information was valued so highly. We grew out services on the back of this data,” he said.

Other concerns have been raised by privacy campaigners over the release of public datasets, particularly the release of anonymised healthcare data for commercial use.

Under the proposals the NHS will release more detailed prescribing data to support health research and businesses working in health analytics, electronic data management systems and analytical software. It will also create a data services system for healthcare professionals and  industry to link datasets from GPs and hospitals.

Jim Killock, founder of digital rights organisation the Open Rights Group, said there is concern that the government is conflating the concept of open data and anonymised personal information.

“The notion of open data is about government transparency around government performance. But personal datasets being analysed for commercial interests is not for the public or open data. These issues should be dealt with separately,” he said.

Aggregating data could create privacy risks, he said. “There has to be a great deal of care about how to handle these datasets.”

Shadbolt believes security and privacy will remain paramount. “We will need to do research and pre-testing to ensure people won’t be identified through jigsaw effects. That is another reason for the creation of the institute. When it comes to individuals’ data, we will look at making sure it is aggregated and anonymised perfectly.

The issue of maintaining privacy is likely to be of growing concern around datasets, particularly as the release of more anonymised data could lead to identification of individuals. But equally, as the open data movement continues to gather momentum, it is hard to see how the government will be able to justify releasing some datasets relating to public services while continuing to charge for others. Although releasing more data could lead to significant loss of revenue in cash-strapped departments and agencies, the potential injection of up to £16bn into our flagging economy is a too powerful stimulus to ignore.


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