gov, open data

Making Open Data Real, episode 1: the gathering

Not everyday you get the opportunity to attend an event at Cabinet Office. Moreover, not everyday they’re inviting you to an event you actually care about. Hence, here I am at 22 Whitehall for a discussion about the Open Data Consultation with their Transparency Team.

The people attending this kind of events usually belong to the following tribes:

  • developers want data to be released as quick as possible and have in mind possible applications/visualisations/uses of the data; tend not to care much about the legal implications
  • openness campaigners push for data to be released no matter whether they can be useful or not; their only concern is transparency (“you’ve got nothing to hide, right?”)
  • privacy campaigners are not necessarily against data release, but are over-worried about big-brotheresque implications (where Big Brother is in this case your car insurer, rather than the Government)
  • policymakers which is a cool description of the average Civil Servant involved in this: they support data to be released with moderation, and are usually worried. And they don’t know about what.

Such a diverse gathering incurs easily in the risk of over-generalising the discussion, which is technically what has happened. However, I guess this was exactly the goal of the Cabinet Office Transparency Team: see how these different people tend to perceive the Open Data issue, and what common grounds can be found. Necessarily, such common grounds are generalistic and tend to involve a discussion about fears, hopes, effects of data releases, and what they want from each other.

The workshops was pretty much interactive and helped each person interact with others and get in contact with, sometimes, a completely different point of view. Evidently there are many hopes about Open Data: that it can be better, quicker, machine readable, and most importantly linked. Many people attending the workshop also stressed they would like the process of data release to be more transparent. Also some fears were made explicit, especially about the possibility of low-quality, meaningless, data being released.

I think, however, that the two most important points made in this respect were

  • sustainability of the data infrastructure: we don’t want Open Data to be released and go offline the day after because the server is engulfed by excessive demand; sustainability also in the sense that we want the agency releasing the data defining a process for updating the data.
  • engagement: the agency releasing Open Data needs to set up a way to interact with developers and campaigners to respond to their queries about the data released, and possibly some kind of “customer service” structure.

I strongly believe these two points to be the key to make the Open Data movement successful and I was frankly surprised of hearing someone dismissing them as “we just want the data”. Although I agree that some data is better than no data, we shouldn’t be driving the system to the frustrating situation in which we can’t affect the Open Data release process because such process hasn’t been defined properly. Moreover, although sometimes low-quality data is acceptable if there’s no alternative, I wouldn’t push the agencies to release data whose quality hasn’t been assessed: we don’t want to drive the whole quality down.

I fully understand that in the view of the Government and of some campaigners Open Data release can be a way to deal with Freedom Of Information requests in a more automatic way, and this surely means that data must be released as and when available. However, we have a historical chance to define the way data should be made public and what kind of added value we expect from them. This is an opportunity not to be missed.

Some interesting points were made when discussing what to expect from the Government and from the other actors. For example, the idea of re-sharing seems to be finally part of the common culture of data: most users are ready to be both users and consumers of open data, and push for everyone to make their data available. These data can be, in turn, derivative data from the original agency: a process that can enrich and empower the final users.

I do not particularly agree with those saying that Government should set the data release and step out of the game: I think that there is a need for a central assessment of the quality of data in order to avoid “crap data” to become mainstream and I can’t see many alternatives to a central agency, as Ofcom is for communications or Ofsted for education. What the Government needs to do is to make such procedures simple, to help other actors to release Open Data with an easy legislation, and to extend access to procurement for SMEs who currently struggle to satisfy the financial requirements even though they might offer better services than bigger companies. I believe that the Government should maintain its regulatory powers in this context in order to make data more relevant, accessible, democratic, genuinely open.

There is some concern about privacy, of course. One of the main point is that once you start releasing data you don’t know how these will be used and by who. Worringly, data don’t need to be directly referring to a person to identify them. Identification is not a binary function. The classical example is how a car insurance company (yes, I pick on them easily!) can alter its prices after analysing crime rates data. This is something they couldn’t do before. In a way, where I live now identifies me strongly than before, and the car insurer can amend their behaviour towards me because of Open Data although they don’t have perfectly identifiable information about me.

Should this prevent crime data to be released? I don’t think so. I would rather call for more regulations and for punishing this kind of behaviour, but I also think this concern shouldn’t be part of the Open Data movement: we only need to care about transparency and, in my case, efficiency of the systems that will be used to release the data. Concerns about privacy need to be addressed, but abuse of data is a widespread problem that does not affect only the Open Data context, so it should be tackled by another, more general, task-force.

I will be commenting about the points of the Open Data Consultation in a following post. For the time being, I would recommend reading what Chris Taggart has written about his response to the ODC.


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