Data: releasing the power?
15 November 2012
Open data may make government feel uncomfortable, but it's the future, a fuel for social and economic growth, insists Francis Maude. Matthew D'Arcy looks for progress
Open government information gets "uncomfortable very quickly" for those in Whitehall, says Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude. His admission about the impact of open data on politicians and civil servants might be interpreted as akin to Tony Blair's lament over the "foolishness" of his adopting freedom of information, but Maude is steadfast in his push to open access to all kinds of government data. And with good reason.
Data was a "fuel for social and economic growth", he said when launching a comprehensive review of new ways to use public sector information in late October. Open data was a way for government to become accountable and transparent; a means to improve public services; and a tool to create wealth.
Huge potential however needed to be realised – a message that resounded recently at an open government policy summit. "The future is undoubtedly open," Maude told a Reform-Cabinet Office conference. But within the summit's delegates of senior thinkers, policy developers and business leaders there were few recent success stories to go around – a problem many admitted.
One source who was responsible for releasing his Whitehall department's datasets told Public Servant he did not think that the data was actually being used, or that in many cases it meant anything to the public it was supposed to empower. He was not alone in this view.
Michael Anderson – not speaking as the Prime Minister's special envoy but as an official in a department that had "really worked hard" at releasing data – was "pretty disappointed by how much had been used". There were "huge opportunities for business to mine our data".
"We would like to see academics mining our data and journalists using it for things other than trying to find embarrassing stories," he said. There was a "global revolution to complete in how we use data". Part of this fell to government, which needed to stop breaching its own policy by releasing PDF documents, he said. Businesses and others had to play their part too.
The public sector's own use of open data was stifling enterprise by acting as a direct competitor, one delegate said. A representative of the Economic Policy Centre said they would be much more successful with their open data based UKCrimeStats.com website if they didn't have a "tax-funded rival – Police.uk".
The government's crime maps website had "copied one of our features", he claimed. Data.gov linked directly to Police.uk, but not to his website, or to other third party developers. Should the "role of government be just to get the data out there and let developers get on with it"? he asked.
"Government should be a data platform and, by and large, get out of the way," according to Professor Nigel Shadbolt, co-director of the Open Data Institute.
Open data needed to enact "a level playing field". Dr Hakim Yadi of the UKTI Life Science Investment Organisation said a lot of work was needed to understand the role of government and where businesses, especially SMEs, fitted in.
Tech City deputy chief executive Ben Southworth has a different take on it. It was "annoying when government comes along and does a great job of government work", he suggested. "No one expects it." The solution was for private organisations to be "more imaginative" and to add value to the data.
The public sector is expected to make imminent advances with data use. Tim Kelsey, the national director for patients and information on the NHS Commissioning Board, sees a data revolution in healthcare from April. Tools such as online prescribing would arrive. Basic questions about "whether we have a good or bad GP" would be answered by real time online user feedback. The NHS would set "the pace for the rest of the world".
"Data we have in the NHS… could be a globally important resource for developing the next generation of medicine at a much lower cost," said Kelsey. "We here, through openness and transparency, could provide the raw material." And work like this could "buy us influence and even buy us growth".
Transparency is Maude's emphatic message: it is far better to work knowing that what you do will be scrutinised. People at every level in government have to think twice about how they spend taxpayers' money – without increasing the fear of taking a risk in a bureaucracy already "infested with risk-averse cautious lawyers".