A warning: open data should not be swallowed up by private companies

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez March 17, 2014
Summary:
MPs in the UK have said in a new report that the public should have an 'inherent right' to government data

Governments around the world involved with driving the open data agenda should be taking note of a report published today by a group of MPs in the UK. The document provides a welcome reminder to government departments and agencies that the data they hold is incredibly valuable and that although there is likely to be interest from the private sector in purchasing it, they should not be swayed by the short term economic gain of a quick sale.

For example, MPs on the influential Public Administration Committee said that including the UK's Postcode Address File, a list of houses

SALE

and their area codes, in the recent sale of Royal Mail to boost share price was a mistake. Not misguided, not a potential error, but an outright mistake. The government took an immediate but narrow view of the value of the information and the Committee believes that the postcode list should have remained as a national dataset.

Chair of the Committee, Bernard Jenkin, said:

“Public access to public sector data must never be sold or given away again. This type of information, like census information and many other data sets, is very expensive to collect and collate into useable form, but it also has huge potential value to the economy and society as a whole if it is kept as an open, public good.”

To drive the message home, they also referenced a Deloitte study which found that the value of public sector information to consumers, businesses and the public sector in 2011/12 to be worth approximately £1.8 billion and the 'social value' of public sector information on the basis of 'conservative assumptions' to be in excess of £5 billion for the same period. These figures are likely to be on the lower end of estimations, highlighting that public data does have incredible value – and if the economy is to benefit as a whole, this information should not be placed into the hands of a few companies, but should instead be made available for all to access and use.

An ongoing effort

Despite the report's criticisms, it can't be said that government's aren't trying to push the open data agenda. For instance the UK has published over 13,000 data sets on a single website, has opened an Open Data Institute that is headed up by inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, and has also spearheaded a global campaign via the Open Government Partnership to raise awareness of principles and boost cross-country collaboration. The US, meanwhile, is also involved in many of the global activities and recently announced a mandate for federal agencies to refresh their Open Government Plans, which are blueprints that are published every two years, highlighting their progress and commitments to becoming more transparent, participatory and collaborative.

The Whitehouse stated:

“The 2014 Plans will provide an inspiring showcase of open government achievements to add to those achieved by agencies in past Plans, such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s expansion of webstreamed meetings so participants across the country can hear about existing and proposed nuclear sites, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s ongoing International Space Apps Challenges, which have encouraged thousands of innovators from around the globe to create tools to improve life on earth and in space.”

© Paul Fleet - Fotolia.com
However, it is incredibly difficult to measure the benefits of the work carried out thus far, as the UK report pointed out this week. The Committee highlighted that many civil servants and those working for government departments lack the skills to interpret data properly, and perhaps more worryingly, many lack that government's desire for increased openness (worried about being held accountable perhaps?). It also highlighted that although the government has published thousands of datasets via data.gov.uk, simply putting data 'out there' is not enough to make government accountable – it needs to establish a 'high quality core' of information that makes data easy for the public to analyse and use.

Interestingly the Committee is arguing that the public should have an “inherent right to data” and that the government should bring forward necessary legislation to reinforce this right without delay. It goes as far to say that restrictions on government data releases should be abolished and that the principles should also be extended to companies tied into contracts with the public sector – something that has been a serious no-go in the past, where 'commercial confidentiality' has always been used as a barrier to access.

The Committee Chair said:

“The UK Government was an early mover on government open data, but other Governments, watching the UK with interest, are catching up fast. If the Government does not take the opportunities offered, there is a risk in the UK that businesses with growth potential will be deterred by fees for data, and by legal and administrative barriers, while other countries are developing their data industrial base and stealing a lead over the UK.

“There is much to be gained from open data, but the Government’s direction of travel is not clear. Open data needs to be treated as a major Government programme in its own right, with the active leadership and management which are the only way to realise the substantial benefits that are within our grasp.”

Privacy concerns could undermine benefits

The NHS in the UK has been fighting a privacy backlash in recent weeks with plans for its new health database, care.data, which will extract patient data from GP systems across the country. It hopes that the collection of all of this information in a central location will help the NHS better analyse health trends across the UK and improve standards within public health. There are also plans, however, to sell information on to private companies.

Although the NHS has said that patient data will be pseudonymised, critics have claimed that it may be possible to identify patients if the data is combined with other publicly available datasets. The privacy storm has forced the NHS to delay the launch of the new system and carry out a new awareness campaign, where it hopes that it can better explain the benefits of collating the data – something that it was

Invasion of privacy warning.

criticised for not doing effectively.

The Committee picked up on the issues of the care.data system and agreed that the privacy concerns should be addressed. However, it was also concerned that the backlash could hinder future progress on open data.

The report states:

“When releasing data, it is the responsibility of Government to avoid risk that individuals may be identified against their will. There has been an effective campaign to highlight unease about the release of anonymised NHS patient data for academic and pharmaceutical research as part of the Care.data programme. 

“There is a clear need to reassure the public about personal privacy. However, it is also important to explain what open data can do to make public services more accountable and responsive to the needs of society. The recent controversy over care.data demonstrates the danger that concerns about privacy will unduly undermine the case for open data.”

Verdict

I'm pleased to see a fresh report that highlights the value of open data. It's something that those in the industry are constantly told, but is easy to forget given that there seems to be a distinct lack of new examples of how datasets are being used to create value for the economy. Instead we just hear the same examples over and over again.

It is also interesting to hear the unequivocal conclusion from those on the Committee that the sale of data was a mistake. My view is that this is a fair conclusion. I don't think that public information should be sold to companies for their benefit, taking control out of the public domain for future use. This rings true for care.data as well – although there are benefits for health research in selling data to companies to use, I still believe that we need to have more controls in place about who the data belongs to, how it is accessed and who it is accessed by. We saw recently how a company got access to NHS data and then uploaded it to Google servers in the US, something that many in the UK would not be comfortable with.

The UK government has been a leader in this field and it should continue to be so, but it should also be aware of the shortfalls in its approach. It should take some guidance from the US on this front and take a fresh look at its open data plans every two years, in order to keep some momentum within departments and those working in the civil service. But most importantly, it needs to find some examples as to how open data is providing value to the UK as a whole. And then shout about them – without proper publicity, the agenda will lose pace and die away.