Open data and the horizon of the next government

On the first official day of the general election campaign, it is opportune to pose the question of what the future of open data might be.

The good news is the future of the movement to open up government and private sector data to benefit the common good and create opportunities for the launch of new businesses would seem to be bright, in the UK.

At a recent ODI [Open Data Institute] Connect event, held at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, representatives of the two main Westminster parties expressed support for open data.

Chi Onwurah, who has been the Labour MP for Newcastle Central and Shadow Cabinet Office Minister for Digital Government, said that it is great that the UK is leading the open data movement, according to the Open Data Barometer. She also said to beware “blockers” to the fulfilment of open data as public good. “It needs to be democratised and understood. Just publishing data can be a screen for unaccountability. It should not be a way of avoiding the need for Freedom of Information requests. Open data needs to be in the right format, open and standard. And it needs to be shown to be delivering something. For example the open spending data is great but it needs to be in a context where citizens can see performance”.

She also called for the principle of people owning their own data, and for the application of appropriate ethical standards.

From the other side of the house — though not literally – Conservative peer Ralph Lucas, who sits on the Lords Digital Skills Select Committee, recalled how he learned the value of open data at the Department of Agriculture in 1996, at the time of the BSE crisis. “We had great scientists and great data, but for four years we had failed to understand what was happening with BSE. We threw the data open to the scientific community, and within three weeks we had an answer”.

But he bewailed what he called “data huggers”, giving the example of UCAS. “In the UK 25,000 kids drop out of university each year. Another 100,000 say they have made the wrong choice of course. UCAS has vast amounts of data that could help with that problem. But they won’t release it. 250 students making a better choice each year would equal what UCAS makes from selling its data. That is a plum opportunity for the UK to make millions of pounds.

“Keep pushing government”, he said.

Professor Nigel Shadbolt, the Chairman and Co-Founder of the Open Data Institute, who chaired the event, commented that open data is indeed a relatively non-partisan topic. In his summing up he said: “open data creates different kinds of value which are not mutually exclusive, from economic to social to environmental. If we are really going to guarantee high-quality supply the best way is to generate sufficient demand for that data. One of the things that the ODI cares hugely about is building that demand side whether it’s the government itself or a vibrant commercial component.

“The idea of rebalancing the asymmetry of ownership between business and consumers, government and citizens is really fundamental. To get trust back when data breaches occur you need to empower people with responsibilities and rights as well as being simply benign receivers of data”.

At the beginning of the event, Gavin Starks, the CEO of the ODI, recounted some of the progress the institute has made in its first two years, including its incubation of 18 start up businesses

He it was who signalled the UK’s number one position on the UN’s Open Data Barometer, ahead of the US and Sweden.

“This is not just about open data changing the nature of business. It’s about reflecting a cultural shift to an open society”, he said.

The opening up government data does seem to be an uncontroversial area of violent agreement on the blue and the red side of politics. But Onwurah and Lucas, at this ODI event, did register some shadows: dumping open data as an anti-FoI screen and data hugging.