Open data must drive digital

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan May 15, 2013
A week after President Barack Obama issued an Open Data mandate for the US federal sector, the UK government's independent review into the same subject has resulted in an urgent call for a national data strategy in order to empower a wider open data agenda.

Stephen Shakespeare

A week after President Barack Obama issued an open data mandate for the US federal sector, the UK government's independent review into the same subject has resulted in an urgent call for a national data strategy in order to empower a wider open data agenda.

The review was announced in the open data white paper in June last year and was led by Stephen Shakespeare, chair of the Data Strategy Board for the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

In his report, An Independent Review of Public Sector Information, Shakespeare declares:

The digital revolution has already fundamentally changed how we live and work together. The creation of the Internet was about new platforms for communication and organisation, which allowed us to connect in new ways - to share information better and faster, to buy and sell things at greater distances
and lower cost.

This is Phase II of the digital revolution. This next phase of the digital revolution has PSI (Public Sector Information) at the very foundation. Therefore Britain enjoys significant advantages: the size and coherence of our public sector (who else has critically important data of the range and depth of the NHS?) combined with government’s strong commitment to a visionary open data policy means that we have the opportunity to be world leaders in the enlightened use of data.

How government reacts to this opportunity will be critical:

So, the next phase of economic, scientific and social development has data as its core - the digital trace left by human activity that can be readily gathered, stored, combined and processed into usable material. This data, to optimise its value to society, must be open, shareable and, where practical, it should be free. The richest source of data is government, which accounts for the largest proportion of organised human activity (think health, education, transport, taxation, welfare, etc).

Cultural barriers

But Shakespeare concedes that there are cultural hurdles to be overcome if this ambition is to be realised:

To paraphrase the great retailer Sir Terry Leahy [of Tesco fame], to run an enterprise without data is like driving by night with no headlights. And yet that is what government often does. It has a strong institutional tendency to proceed by hunch, or prejudice, or by the easy option.

To change that, Shakespeare outlines a number of key objectives :

  • Defining the principles of ownership so data belongs to the citizen, not to the government.
  • Creating a national data strategy for maximising our opportunity - a plan that is recognisable outside government, actionable, and auditable.
  • Accelerating implementation so that delivery is broader and more reliable, and that data is utilized in commerce and public administration strategic focusing of support for the new infrastructure (including strategic investment in basic data science).
  • Ensuring trust in the system with the use of available technology of data security, and imposing higher penalties for infractions.

This then translates into a series of action points:

  • The government should produce and take forward a clear, predictable, accountable ‘National Data Strategy’ which encompasses PSI in its entirety. This national strategy should be defined top-down but build on engagement with data communities, implemented by a non-government departmental team, and audited externally.
  • The strategy should include a twin-track policy for data- release, which recognises that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good: a simultaneous 'publish early even if imperfect’ imperative AND a commitment to a 'high quality core'. 
  • There should be clear leadership for driving the implementation of the National Data Strategy throughout the public sector with a single body with a single public interface to drive increased access to PSI.
  • To promote and support a more beneficial economic model for Trading Fund data, the government should review how Trading Funds are recognised and rewarded for their activities to stimulate innovation and growth in the wider markets they serve.
  • A clear pragmatic policy on privacy and confidentiality that increases protections for citizens while also increasing the availability of data to external users, can be facilitated through use of ‘sandbox’ technologies, or ‘safe havens’ that allow work on data without allowing it to be taken from a secure area.
  • There should be a focused programme of investment to build skill-sets in basic data science through our academic institutions, covering both genuinely unfettered 'basic research' and research of 'practical immediate value' to the national data strategy. 
  • A “data intelligence and innovation group” should be created that includes experts from within and outside government that as part of its wider role supports, challenges and takes forward thinking on how to improve the collection, processing and use of PSI. 
  • Each government department and wider public sector body should review whether the PSI that they currently hold is being used to maximum effect in developing, evaluating and adapting policy.
  • There needs to be a model of a 'mixed economy' of public data so that everyone can benefit from some forms of two-way sharing between the public and the commercial sectors.

For the Cabinet Office - ultimate owners of the open data agenda - Minister Francis Maude said the Shakespeare Review is:

“an important contribution to how we unleash the potential in open data, and we will now consider its recommendations. The release of open data is vital to help the UK get ahead in the global race. Research supporting this review finds that the social and economic benefits of public sector information to the UK are already worth over £7 billion. We want to see that grow."

According to an economic assessment by consultancy Deloitte, the value of unlocking public sector information to the UK economy could be as high as £1.8 billion, but once wider social and economic benefits are factored in, the full value is at least £6.8 billion.

Untitled 7


Source: Deloitte/Data Strategy Board

One thing that the US open data mandate highlighted was the potential for private sector organisations to use public sector data to fuel innovation and entrepreneurial efforts. This is missing from the UK vision to date, a point noted by the Open Data Institute’s CEO Gavin Starks who said:

“Whilst the report provides a solid set of recommendations, the ODI would like to have seen a greater emphasis placed on the role that public sector information can play in innovation. When it comes to open data, the UK has the leadership position, so why aren’t we being more ambitious?

"What happens now on the back of this report is crucial in unlocking the value of open data. If the government is serious about making data open, it has to be made available and fast.”

A long game

In reality the full benefits of an effective open data strategy will more likely take decades to come to fruition. The cultural and organisational obstacles that will be thrown up will be enormous. The administrative machine in Westminster and beyond has spent decades cultivating a mindset that says data is to held on to and not set free. That's not going to change overnight.

Nonetheless, the recommendations of the Shakespeare review - if accepted in full - represent some very positive steps forward. The idea of getting information out there and not using 'quality issues' as a reason not to release it is particularly appealing. Giving people rough data to work with is better than delaying its release for months or years to hone it into shape.

On the back of the Obama mandate earlier this month, it's been an exciting time for the cause of open data. It's important that Maude's team at the Cabinet Office maintain the momentum behind this and keep it as a priority agenda item. There are rich rewards for the taking if the work is put in now on implementing Shakespeare's ideas.

A grey colored placeholder image