The private sector answer to exploiting public sector data

The big IT suppliers emphasise the importance of transparent governance and maximising the benefits of open government data.

The UK government has mounted, and in some cases joined, a variety of initiatives in recent years aimed at open standards, open source software and, perhaps above all, open data.

At government level this means transparency and the ability of organisations and the public at large to access the various datasets they may have a vested interest in.

The UK government joined the Open Government Partnership (OGP) as a founding member in 2011. The OGP was established with a remit to establish "an international platform for domestic reformers", a label which the UK would presumably like to wear, were it not for its own various back-pedalling on open data and Freedom of Information (FOI) targets, due to legacy system issues and other complexities.

The government established the National Information Infrastructure (NII), committed to creating "as complete an inventory of the datasets they hold as possible". Once again, although initiatives of this kind set out with the best intentions, pragmatic rationalisation and execution are often a harder trick to pull off.

The government justifies the need to create a transparent environment for open data because, in its own view, over the past three years it has become clear that public sector information is capable of driving significant social and economic growth in the UK.

The NII published a white paper in October 2013 entitled Setting out a National Information Infrastructure. Its authors note: "Innovative applications and services have been developed using government open data from datasets whose value was not immediately obvious."

The government advocates a "twin-track" approach to the release of government data, focusing in the first instance on the release of  "core reference data"; and then related "unspecified other" datasets.

The role of governance, risk and compliance

Given the interplay and interconnect points between business and government today, how do big suppliers – such as SAP, Oracle and IBM – offer tools to help organisations and governments categorise data for the purposes of governance, risk and compliance (or GRC as it is now increasingly known)?

Oracle for its part has been nothing if not formal on this subject and has published a white paper, entitled Transparency in the Public Sector: Its Importance and How Oracle Supports Governments Efforts, to set out its stall.

Oracle says it offers a variety of technology and application products that can support government transparency efforts anywhere. The supplier says governments can use its Endeca enterprise content management tool to give citizens an easy way to search for and retrieve a wide variety of documents.

Government "citizen interface"

After buying Hyperion in 2007, Oracle owns its Public Sector Planning and Budgeting tool, which can provide citizens with an interactive way to view the budget and other financial information. Even more directly, Oracle Web Center Portal and Oracle Data Integrator can provide the guts behind transparency website construction with what suppliers like to call a "citizen interface", along with infrastructure to gather, classify, store and present data.

"Oracle is very supportive of the move towards transparency and open data by many governments worldwide," says Steve Gold, Oracle UK vice-president for public sector. "Oracle’s original development was based on making data accessible through SQL, an early open standard, and our product strategies have always been closely aligned to open standards. Being primarily a product supplier rather than a services company, Oracle is not generally involved in developing systems for government, rather working with systems integrators, outsourcers and specialist development partners."

What does SAP bring to the table?

SAP’s pedigree in enterprise resource management and data analytics should arguably give it a good footing in the GRC market. SAP operates its own @SAPOpenGov Twitter stream and the supplier openly states that, while there are of course many political, operational, and financial challenges to open government, technology is not one of them.

SAP is keen to highlight the "multiple benefits" of open government. It says that, along with the obvious aspect of improved transparency in governments’ use of taxpayers’ money, disclosure of other information will help citizens make informed decisions; increase dialogue between governments and citizens; improve public welfare and government efficiency; and give external ecosystem developers government data, to create mash-ups and applications.

Dante Ricci, senior director of public sector at SAP, says: "Our customers have found that, in cities where citizens could access data and run with it, they have created popular apps that may not have been envisioned by city managers.

"There are citizens out there, right now, with the interest and the ability to harness constantly evolving machine-readable data. SAP Hana in-memory processing significantly enhances processing capability and response time, allowing for search and reporting capacity never seen before, overcoming architectural or legacy integration challenges. Combined with predictive analytics and data mining, disparate data sources can be used for real-time decision making and creating solutions to existing challenges and problems.

"Since the data is open, software development is continuous, iterative and collaborative. Performance management solutions, combined with mobile application support for continuous improvement of public services, increases government officials’ accountability and gives citizens the sense they are directly involved in improving their community’s quality of life."

Citizens, organisations and governments

IBM sings a similar tune and says mature governance for openness requires the public organisation to take a top-down view of risk, such that it is made part of the fabric of business, not an unattached layer of oversight.

IBM says the senior management figures it speaks to acknowledge both a “perpetual information explosion” and “persistent data paradoxes” today. Essentially, this is the age-old management dilemma of too much data and too little insight.

IBM decrees three axioms of government information:

  1. Governments are not going to stop collecting data;
  2. The touchpoints to that data continue to expand far beyond government; and
  3. Citizens’ and businesses’ demands for access to the data are increasing.

IBM’s Opening Up Government white paper is subtitled: How to unleash the power of information for new economic growth, and tells us: "Tensions exist on multiple fronts due to economic and fiscal uncertainty amid social and political change. These tensions highlight new dynamics in the relationships among citizens, organisations and their governments long in the making. ‘Open’ principles such as accessibility, transparency, collaboration and participation lie at the heart of these expectations."

It is important to remember open data does not mean all data. The path to open government needs to have enough control mechanisms to ensure that we can corral and contain sensitive information when needed.

Private sector approach with public sector constraints

There is an element in all of what the major software providers say that smacks of them saying: "Hey, our products work well for companies, so they work great for open government too." But more tailored custom-architected solutions are coming to the fore now and, if anyone has big data, then surely it is government.

The government’s problem now is to grapple with the same obstacles of legacy systems integration, big dataset analysis and architectural interconnectivity issues as one would expect to find in the private sector – but it has to do all that and juggle civil service bureaucracy and public IT spending margins at the same time.

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