Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude talks to Computer Weekly about the importance of open data to the UK economy, why not all public sector datasets may become entirely free, and proposals to scale back the Freedom of Information Act.
“Open data is the next industrial revolution,” according to Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude. “Around 200 years ago, entrepreneurs were taking raw materials and turning them into products in ways people had never thought of before, now we are seeing the use of raw material in the form of open data to create products and services people haven’t thought of.”
Transparency, accountability and citizen choice has been the government’s mantra for open data since first making public sector datasets available. But there is also hope that, by doing so, it will help boost economic growth, with small businesses in particular taking the data and creating things like apps.
“We’re bringing attention to some of the innovation being driven through the opening-up of data,” said Maude.
Further moves include revamping of its public sector dataset site data.gov.uk to make it easier to navigate, search datasets and enable users to better engage with each other.
“We also need to also look at the Office for National Statistics website, which is a rich source of data but is actually very difficult to use and that is something which will be dramatically changed.” Maude said it wouldn’t take millions of pounds to make these changes, as the government could use SMEs at a fraction of the cost.
But while open data campaigners have praised the Cabinet Office’s drive for open data, some have criticised departments for continuing to lock down key datasets – particularly the Ordnance Survey (OS). Does Maude have any plans to open up the OS Address Point database – the department’s national address dataset which companies have to pay between £16,562 to £132,599 to access?
“We think it’s really important that we should have a single address register, it is astonishing that up to now there have been three, the Ordnance Survey’s, one in local government and the Royal Mail, all of which come together once for the census. We think this is a fundamental piece of data that needs to be in one place, easily available but not necessarily for free,” he said.
“It’s not cheap to have and keep updated on a real-time basis. It’s something essential in the world of open data and for developers who want to use different sources of geospatial data to create more products,” he said.
"As the Royal Mail becomes more privatised, we will make sure this is something that is perfected for the future," he added.
“In the Cabinet Office, No 10 and the Treasury, we have been vigorous in promoting open data but have found it heartening how many other departments are on board. When I urge colleagues and officials to go further, yes we are trail-blazers, but we are often pushing at an open door. The Home Office crime map app has created something which is world-leading."
Maude's promotion of the government’s open data agenda at a seminar hosted by Digital Birmingham comes the same day as the Justice Select Committee holds its third evidence session into proposed reform of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. Reforms could lead to the introduction of a fee for individuals to make FOI requests to cut the amount of paperwork involved. Critics have claimed this would lead to less public sector transparency. But Maude says there is no contradiction between the push to open up more data and the proposals to review FOI.
“What we are doing is releasing data and creating the statutory right to data so the public can demand access to datasets. Government should be more willing to release data on the basis of which policy decisions are made.”
The danger of the current situation under the FOI Act is that it could lead to a culture where ministerial advice is given in an informal, unstructured way, he said. “What needs to be revised is that we don’t want officials to pull punches in their advice because of fear that in two years' time [that advice could be released] because they weren’t confident it was given in a confidential space.”
Francis Maude was speaking today to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) at a seminar hosted by Digital Birmingham.