In recent years, the central government in the UK has been involved in pushing an open data agenda, not only on its home turf, but also globally through the Open Government Partnership of which it was one of the eight founding members. The idea is to create governments that are more open, accessible and accountable by giving the public access to a vast array of datasets that are downloadable and reusable.The UK has had varying degrees of success with this at a central government level – it is working to fulfil its commitments and has released thousands of datasets, which can be found at data.gov.uk, but has also been struggling with unleashing information from complex legacy systems.
However, in the pipeline there are plans to create a National Information Infrastructure, which will ultimately contain all public data in a way that can be accessed by anyone, in real time. Recent efforts have also been championed by inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who heads up the government's Open Data Institute – which aims to nurture innovative data driven start-ups and support organisations in working effectively with open data.
You get the idea, open it all up and hopefully save some money by allowing the public to build useful apps, whilst also being seen to be very 'transparent'.
Of course there's plenty of data to be getting on with at the central government level, but what about local government data? With over 400 councils collecting information from tens of millions of constituents on a daily basis, there should be equal opportunity at a regional level too. The Cabinet Office has been pushing the idea and urging councils to replicate what's happening in Whitehall departments – however, one of the UK's leading think thanks, Policy Exchange, explained to diginomica that there hasn't been a great deal of success as of yet and a lot of regional public bodies are running scared.
A fear of being humiliated
Eddie Copeland, the head of the think tank's Digital Government Unit, explained that there are some councils in the UK – such as Camden in London, which has a very comprehensive digital strategy – that are genuinely pioneering in releasing data. However, he said that generally the response from councils has been variable, where some are simply holding one day hackathons to see what developers can do with the data put forward to them,whilst others are staying clear from the whole agenda.
“There's councils who wouldn't even know what open data was and if they do know what it is they find the idea terrifying,” said Copeland.
Copeland has two theories as to why there has been some reservation from regional governmnet:
- Councils are worried about what the data will be used to do – there are local politicians who will be worried that the data will be used to embarrass them and that money wasting scandals will hit the headlines. (Everyone's up for being transparent unless its exposing the ugly truth).
- The second concern is with regard to how identifiable the data is. Obviously the open data agenda looks to release information that is non-identifiable, but even if information such as date of birth and gender are removed, it is possible to use other publicly available datasets to combine with this information and there is a risk that the data could then become identifiable. For example, central government has faced a backlash for its care.data, which diginomica has been following in recent weeks.
“There's a fear that releasing everything seems pretty scary, unless someone has got the time to really check that you are not releasing really sensitive information, which could obviously backfire quite massively,” said Copeland.
Focus on the ROI, not the quantity
Councils are also struggling with establishing a robust business case for their open data strategies, according to Policy Exchange. Copeland said that whilst in theory releasing a whole load of data doesn't have to be that costly, when all you essentially need is a website that you can upload Excel spreadsheets to, if you want to make the data useful, then some resources are required.
For instance, often APIs are required as the average person isn't going to go scrolling through thousands of spreadsheets to find some valuable information. Transport for London, for example, has some excellent APIs that allow people to easily use data on where every tube, train, bike or bus is, which has resulted in a whole suite of useful applications being created by developers that are not on Transport for London's payroll.
“For open data to be useful a lot of it requires some up front investment because creating a website with just an Excel spreadsheet on it will be of limited use, unless it comes with some explanation, particularly when you have got the vast quantities of data that government does. That hasn't been properly costed in people's estimates to date,” said Copeland.
“I see return on investment as being one of the really big problems and its one that councils have not got their head around yet. My concern with the open data agenda is that if there's this move for everything to be released, we could end up with it backfiring – because if councils look back in five years time and see that releasing all the data did nothing to their bottom line whatsoever, but did add resource time and investment costs, then they will wonder why the hell they are spending all this money.”
The Policy Exchange suggests that to overcome this, open data should be targeted at datasets that are quickly going to generate value for government, instead of just releasing everything. For instance, there have been examples of councils releasing parking data, which developers have then used to create very useful apps for the public. This not only means the taxpayer isn't paying for the development of the application, but councils could also potentially save money on reducing the number of parking inspectors they need, or reducing the number of parking signs etc.
“Are there things that councils are expected to release information on via analogue channels, face to face, over the phone. Could they do that more cost effectively by releasing data? Target those datasets,” said Copeland.
“What I would argue is that councils need to focus on that return on investment to make sure that open data is sustainable and not something that they end up culling five years down the line.”
Local gov needs some help
So with councils evidently struggling to get to benefits with not only the processes involved in releasing data, but also the benefits that could be gained, Copeland is surprised that there hasn't been more of a collaboration effort to drive the agenda.
He argues that councils individually investing in solutions, resources, research is a waste of money and the whole process could be improved by not only regional authorities working together, but also by central government issuing some practical tools to help them along.
“The slightly depressing thing that we are seeing at the moment is the sheer variability in what the councils' level of awareness, their understanding of what can be released and what they are doing with it. We get the slightly frustrating situation where different councils are all investing independently in solutions, where you would have thought it would make sense to come up with some sort of common format as to how this is done. There is very little consistency,” said Copeland.
“Guidance from central government would be very helpful. It seems mad to me that you have got hundreds of local authorities all trying independently to get the same advice and the same processes in place – there is a cost case there to get guidelines and regulations in place saying what can and can't be done.
“Just as the bare minimum, just so they know that they can safely proceed. Allow local councils to be innovative with their own solutions, find local solutions, they know their areas best. But I think it would help them to get the baseline laid out for them so they know where they stand.”