Data.gov.uk one year on

A year, almost to the day, from the launch of data.gov.uk it seems clearer that it was really trying to fire at three targets simultaneously: transparency, usefulness and good old commercial value. Three targets that have some overlap, but also some inherent tensions. How well has it done?

On transparency, we heard much along the lines of “sunlight being the best disinfectant” and that the very act of openly publishing information, particularly on accounting and spending, would do much to reduce wrong-doing and rebuild trust. It might not matter so much if the information wasn’t actually read that regularly or in detail; what mattered most was that it was published. We were told that tools would emerge to make general understanding easier, that amateur auditors would audit from their armchairs and indeed there has been some progress in this area. But there hasn’t been a dramatic unveiling of hitherto concealed horrors, just some visualisations and a tendency to focus on quirky details that make interesting stories—with no substantive follow-up.

On the subject of usefulness, things have gone less well. We haven’t seen much in the way of new apps and services driven by data.gov.uk data which actually deliver value to people in their day-to-day lives. Political pressure has been focused on driving out more of the spending data, perhaps at the expense of data that may be practically useful. We can speculate about the political factors at work here: gleeful exposure of the excesses of the last government and the current tensions between central and local government on spending priorities both spring to mind. But it does mean that the genuinely “useful”—the data that describes things in real people’s lives: maps, postcodes, contact information, opening hours, forthcoming events—and the real-time stuff, such as live running transport information, are falling behind. And that’s where the really useful apps and services are going to come from. Certainly, recent moves such as the release of Ordnance Survey maps under reusable licence are steps in the right direction, but much more political will is needed here to level things up.

And on the last target—the billions of commercial value that were touted as being locked up in government data—things don’t seem to be going too well at all. Some of this value was no doubt to be derived from the opening up of key enabling datasets—such as maps and postcodes—allowing new business opportunities to really take off. But some of it would have to come from inherent value in the data itself, or released from the combining of datasets to produce new products: taking data and finding new markets for it. Quite where this is currently headed remains shrouded in vagueness, but a new Public Data Corporation is now proposed, which lists among its objectives the management of the conflict between revenues from the sale of data and the benefits of making it freely available. This doesn’t actually seem that unreasonable. If one considers data as a national asset, why would it not be sensible to secure appropriate commercial value from it as with any other asset? But the proposal has triggered questions and some criticism from open data campaigners that this wasn’t how it was supposed to be. The extent to which commitments to release data free of charge were actually made or implied is now coming under scrutiny.

So where do we go from here? In the light of what we’ve learned over the last year, I’d prescribe the following: a rebalancing of the data held within data.gov.uk in favour of the genuinely useful; swift clarification of what is to be made available free of charge and what is not; a more mature approach to engaging developers and entrepreneurs if we’re really to see apps and services flourish (it’s going to take more than just a few “hack days”); and some exploration of how to demonstrate the value returned from what government spends. This last point should be of concern: at the launch last November of central government spending data, I reminded Francis Maude and the Transparency Board of Wilde’s description of those who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing…

The speed camera and the Public Data Corporation

Think of a speed camera.

Think of the proposal for the Public Data Corporation.

One of them has attracted controversy. This seems to be based on instinct or ideology, without much groundwork being put in on the complex models and circumstances that surround it, and what it might mean as part of a bigger picture.

Its supporters see it as a way of bringing some order to a complex system; of ensuring that things actually do move more quickly by introducing an element of regulation. That it will actually bring some accountability and ensure things don’t run recklessly out of control.

Its detractors see it as a cynical front for raising cash for the government.

Oh, and the other one is a speed camera… :-)

What I’m saying, of course, is: we don’t really have much evidence as yet – perhaps it would be good to tease some out before taking a strong position either way?