Committee report calls for “presumption of openness” with public data

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Committee report calls for “presumption of openness” with public data

Caroline Baldwin

The government should have a “presumption of openness” when it comes to public data, the Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) said.

A report of statistics and open data has been published today that states government needs to recognise the public has the inherent ‘right to data’ under Freedom of Information, and that it should clarify its policy on open data by bringing forward necessary legislation without delay.

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 “Government and its agencies collect masses of data which, if made available and useable, can empower citizens, make Government more accountable, improve public services, and benefit the economy and society as a whole,” says the report.

The value of open data to consumers, businesses and the public sector could reach up to £1.8bn according to Deloitte.

But the Committee also said that public access to data must never be sold or given away. Referring to the sale of the Postcode Address File (PAF) when Royal Mail began trading on the stock market, the committee said it should not happen again.

“The sale of the PAF with the Royal Mail was a mistake,” said Bernard Jenkin, Conservative MP for Harwich and North Essex and chair of the committee. “This type of information, like census information and many other data sets, is very expensive to collect and collate into useable form, but it also has huge potential value to the economy and society as a whole if it is kept as an open, public good.”

Data definitions

  • Data: Qualitative or quantitative statements or numbers that are assumed to be factual, and not the product of analysis or interpretation.
  • Open Data: Data that is accessible (ideally via the internet) at no more than the cost of reproduction, without limitations based on user identity or intent; in a digital, machine -readable format for interoperation with other data; and free of restriction on use or redistribution in its licensing conditions.
  • Public Sector Information (PSI): Information and data subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Reuse of Public Sector Information Regulations 2005; data and information produced, collected or held by public authorities, as part of their public task.
  • Open Government Data: Public Sector Information that has been made available to the public as open data (Source for definitions: Open Data White Paper 2012)

 *Taken from the PASC report: Statistics and Open Data:  Harvesting unused knowledge, empowering citizens and improving public services

“The UK government was an early mover on government open data, but other governments, watching the UK with interest, are catching up fast. If the government does not take the opportunities offered, there is a risk in the UK that businesses with growth potential will be deterred by fees for data, and by legal and administrative barriers, while other countries are developing their data industrial base and stealing a lead over the UK.”

He said the Cabinet Office needs to lead government departments to do much more to maximise the social and economic potential of open data, “Not least in increasing their own efficiency and effectiveness,” he said. “It is not enough to simply put data 'out there'.”

The committee also said that many civil and public servants lack the skills to interpret data properly, while some civil servants do not seem to share the government’s desire for openness.

“There should be a presumption of openness, and a willingness to 'publish early even if imperfect’,” he said.

The Committee also noted the public’s right to privacy, calling on the recently care.data controversy which it stated demonstrates the privacy concerns over the collection and sharing of data but also how privacy concerns may unnecessarily undermine the case for open data.


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