Open data sop or not

If all public information is public and anyone can do what they like with it then…

“You don’t need us,” concluded one local authority executive at Socitm’s 2010 conference in Brighton last month.

Is the public sector really sowing the seeds of its own demise with the open data initiative?

Like a swimming pool with no sides, if you let it all go free it may just all go: snapped up by precocious little bands of XML nerds and sold on as a profitable service to those citizens who can afford to pay for it.

In old bureaucratic Britain, public data belonged to everyone but was accessible to none. Soon it will be accessible to all but decipherable only by those who like to play with data analysis tools in their spare time.

That’s the fear: that the transparency agenda will transform the periphery of government, while the centre of power retains its confidentiality and therefore integrity. That the open data revolution, with its publication of contracts and right to public data sets, will indeed improve accountability, but not as much as it nourishes the private sector.

The result may be a powerful centre and a private periphery. Let’s not forget that local authorities may have schools and police forces snatched from them too. Devolution it is, but where to?

Smash the establishment

This poses an existential problem for those agencies that live from the sale of repurposed data. The Ordnance Survey and Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy are two that have come under the open data spotlight, and for whom free data may mean burst borders.

Still, you can’t have a revolution without breaking some heads. The BBC, for example, is a national treasure, but its archive is public and should be free for all who have a TV licence, while rights holders and stars should say farewell to upper-middle-class luxuries, trumped up circus performers that they are. Their privileges are simply unsustainable in a networked world.

More prosaically, Dane Wright, the Brent Council IT strategy manager at the vanguard of these changes, believes open data will lead to the demise not of the public sector but merely to some of its activities.

Deloitte gave an inkling of what will be first for the chop in a report for Leicester County Council last year. It had the equivalent of 92 staff employed at a cost of £3.7m a year managing 3,000 datasets designed to satisfy central government demands. These functions will be consolidated and shared, their job will be to simply manage a plantation of data sources. The data free-for-all-will also clear much of the impenetrable jungle of public websites and the staff who manage them as well.

Sack the IT dept.

Perhaps those ICT staff sacked as open data inefficiencies will form mutuals to repurpose the data they used to work so hard to keep private for public bodies.

Matters will be complicated when the coalition’s Local Government Bill gives councils free reign to compete with private companies.

Yet even though free data will eventually not be free but traded, this sour interpretation of the initiative belies its undeniable and vigorous optimism. It is a liberation, after all.

It may have looked like Tory opportunism, but the possibility that private companies will be forced to open their data when they work on public projects is the surest sign yet that the open data movement’s higher ideals have survived its adoption by government.

Someone must now clarify exactly what in this androgynous world will be private but public. That is, what the public can claim a right to without getting screwed.