Like many other countries, the UK's traditional approach to data produced by government in carrying out its functions has been to keep it closed, doling it out only to those willing and able to pay substantial sums for it. Such closed data includes both core reference data such as Ordnance Survey's maps, the Royal Mail's postcode database, Companies House corporate registrations, and the Land Registry and other types of public information such as bus and train schedules that are now held by private companies. Under this regime only a company the size of Google can afford an initiative to create comprehensive geocoding anyone can use to pinpoint addresses on their maps for free; there is no publicly owned platform on which small start-ups and individuals can build innovations.
With many countries seeking new engines of growth, open data initiatives have become a global phenomenon. In recent years many voices, most notably the Guardian with its Free Our Data campaign, have called on the UK government to emulate the US's long-held policy that data gathered at taxpayers' expense belongs to the public. As noted, an important part of this argument is economic: the US's open approach has fuelled new multi-billion dollar global industries – GPS being a prime example. Similarly, in the case of data owned by the companies managing privatised transport services there is clear benefit in making scheduling information as widely available as possible. Equally important, however, is the public service argument: the companies and governments that hold the data tend to forget that their business is not selling data but providing a public service. No one benefits when a licence is denied – as happened in 2010-2011 – to someone who creates a free web app presenting upcoming trains from nearby stations in a simple format for mobile phone users.
Open data became UK government policy in 2010. However, there is a long way to go in terms of both opening data sets for public use and establishing a solid understanding of the distinction between non-personal data that should be opened and personal data that must be carefully protected. The Open Rights Group's goals in this area are to open up data where appropriate while protecting personal privacy in those areas where it is at risk.
One difficulty is that agencies such as Ordnance Survey, Companies House, the Met Office, and the Land Registry are accustomed to deriving revenues from selling the data they hold. Because these data sets are the four most important core reference data sets, these four bodies, known as trading funds, are the founding members of the new Public Data Group and are beginning to make some data available in an accessible and reusable format under the Open Government Licence. Of the four, only the Met Office has committed to opening the bulk of its raw data for free. Additional trading funds are expected to join later. This initiative, however, still maintains the old finance model, albeit with improved licensing and pricing. A portion of the PDG's revenues, therefore, will be handed to a new body called the Data Strategy Board, which will use the money to buy data to be opened. This structure is a transitional solution while the trading funds shift their business models and develop new revenue streams, but there is much discussion surrounding what those should be and whether public bodies should be allowed to offer services on a commercial basis. In some cases, such as the Met Office, the services provided are of great public value, for example in understanding climate change.
ORG believes it is important to create a longer-term plan for creating a complete open data system, with financial models to make it sustainable. Open data should not turn into a squabble over allocating a relatively small sum of money to buy data sets; instead, the Data Strategy Board should be a true strategy board providing direction and overseeing the progressive opening of data. To ensure this, we believe that the Data Strategy Board should include representatives of civil society.
The same is true of the Open Data Institute, a new initiative to be based at the University of Southampton and directed by web inventor Tim Berners-Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt. ODI is a research and development body intended to support the growth of new businesses based on government data. ORG recommends additional engagement with citizens and consumer groups to complement its focus on supporting businesses and innovation.
Recent government announcements with respect to NHS data conflate the release of so-called "anonymised" personal information to private companies for research with open data. ORG believes this is a dangerous mistake to make. Government statistics based on census data should be opened for reuse, but computer security experts have shown repeatedly that supposedly anonymised data can be re-identified when matched to other, publicly available data sets. ORG opposes the release of such information without careful precautions to preserve personal privacy and favours open peer review of the technologies involved.
What you can do:
- Apply to join the Open Data User Group.
- Help the Open Knowledge Foundation build tools and applications.
- Join ORG.