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October 13, 2011

Briefing on the Public Data Corporation

The PDC Consultation

The coalition government is running two consultations in the summer of 2011. The proposed Public Data Corporation deals with public sector information of high economic value produced by specialist government agencies. This public information, -- much of it core reference data such as addresses, maps and registers -- is unique and critical for a modern developed economy and society.

In UK the bodies producing this pubic information have been generating their own income from the sale of data both basic and in value added products, so called Trading Funds. According to the consultation, the PDC aims to bring together several of these organisations in order to “align the way they manage and release public data for reuse”.

The stated aims of the PDC are to:

  1. provide a more consistent approach towards access to and accessibility of public sector information, balancing the desire for more data free for re-us whilst ensuring affordability and value for taxpayers;
  2. create a centre of excellence driving further efficiencies in the public sector;
  3. and create a vehicle that can attract private investment.

This consultation is presented as complementary to Making Open Data Real, which deals with public services that produce data as a by-product of their core activities.

When questioned about the reasons for two different consultations, the Cabinet Office explained that the PDC was started from a very different area in government, and that they didn’t think it made sense to mix them up. The view of many open data activists is that a it would have been better to develop a comprehensive data policy by looking at both data areas together. Many issues, particularly around regulation, cannot be dealt with separately for each data type as all are covered by the same European legislation.

UK PSI legal framework

Access and release

The paper explores proposals for improved access and release of data, much of it fairly straightforward points about formats, metadata, etc. It also has some proposals to simplify and streamline licensing with different possible levels of centralisation. These ideas seem quite an improvement in the current complex licensing regime, but unfortunately do not have anything to do with open data.

Regulation

Another area explored is the regulatory framework, which the consultation expressly limits to PDC specific functions (charging for data). However, it is difficult to see how this can happen in practice, without simplifying the overall framework.

The consultation looks at how a new regulating body could be inserted in the current picture, but in our view the text is very confusing, and it appears that this new body would in reality have a different function centred on advising the PDC or its composing bodies on:

-       preparing and reviewing statements of public task

-       arrangements for making more data freely available year on year

-       while developing a sustainable business model

In our view, this could be a very good approach to the PDC itself if the trading funds model is not going to be challenged.

Charging for data

 This leads to the central focus of the consultation, the charging models for data.

The paper makes clear that the need to attract private investment is the main obstacle to open data and precludes any debate on releasing data at a marginal cost pricing sustained through general taxation.

The related option presented, and quickly abandoned, is to reduce public data production to basic raw data and withdraw all value added services, leaving these to the private sector with the government purchasing them back. This is of course rejected as unaffordable and risking market failure.  We believe it is deeply disingenuous to associate making raw data freely available with dismantling the state capacity for refined data production. In other countries, such as the US this type of  information is paid for by general taxation and released for free without restrictions.

It is also disingenuous to present as a valid option a profit maximisation model, as the other of two extremes to be rejected, when public sector information regulations clearly state:

(14) Where charges are made, the total income should not exceed the total costs of collecting, producing, reproducing and disseminating documents, together with a reasonable return on investment, having due regard to the self-financing requirements of the public sector body concerned, where applicable. 

The options explored are:

  1. Status quo with a commitment to more free data.
  2. Harmonisation and simplification
  3. Freemium

It is obvious from the text that these options are not mutually incompatible, and that indeed the preferred policy outcome would be a harmonised pricing framework with some data provided without charge under a freemium model, and with a non-compulsory “commitment” to increased open data.

Establishing a more consistent, stable and transparent pricing framework than that currently provided by trading funds is surely an improvement, but we believe that open data options should have been fully explored.

This policy is an abandonment of any moves towards US style Federal free data of the kind The Guardian campaign Free Our Data asked for. Instead there is high probability of some form of privatisation of the trading funds involved. This also makes it very unlikely that other trading funds and valuable core reference data not in the initial PDC will be freed any time soon (Companies House for example).

The consultation on “Data Policy for as Public Data Corporation” follows from a non-binding “engagement” with stakeholders earlier in the year, where ORG took a very active role. Although the paper does generally reflect previous discussions, it does not manage to solve the fundamental contradictions at the heart of the process between making data open and generate revenue and private investment.

The preliminary trading funds involved: Met Office, Ordinance Survey and Land Registry.

The PDC and digital rights

The question is how this is relevant for digital rights and the public interest.

Effects of the PDC on wider open data agenda

  • Can we argue that the lack of open data from PDC and other trading funds is going to affect the improvement of public services and the transparency agenda in general? Is this data necessary to provide context and enrichment to the data in the other consultation? This is my instinctive view, but other don't agree (e.g. Steven Feldman). Do we have any concrete examples?
  • Along similar lines: can innovative start ups flourish without a wider open data ecosystem or will it just benefit incumbents who can pay PDC fees? Open Data is part of the next Strategy for Growth. Should ORG engage with this?

Is the PDC compatible at all with the Open Data agenda? Can we mitigate the worst elements?

Pricing

Should ORG demand that the government looks at all options for pricing, and explain in more detail the rejected options?

  • No evidence provided on the claimed unsustainability of the data utility model 
  • No consideration of hybrid models (free/raw and paid/refined)
  • EU PSI review consultation came overwhelmingly in favour of free (particularly for non-commercial use), and review of PSI set to support this option.

Is this completely unacceptable, or could we propose a set of core civic principles that any final charging structures must respect?

The PDC consultation proposes a freemium model to save some face (“balance the priorities”), but this is not aligned along raw/refined parameters.

Should we engage with Freemium along these lines:

  • free including reuse for non-commercial purposes
  • select key datasets with social value to be free and open (which?)
  • any sort of freemium model that frustrates civic use of open data is unacceptable

Privatisation of public data provision

Should ORG oppose privatisation of public data providers the same way that water campaigners could oppose a similar move on public water utilities?

What safeguards can be put in place to prevent backdoor privatisation of public digital assets? What type of private investment could work?