January 17, 2011 | Javier Ruiz

Controversy around new Public Data Corporation

The recent announcement by the Cabinet Office of the creation of a new Public Data Corporation has quickly generated a large amount of turmoil among open data activists.

The vagueness of the press release has left many bewildered and wondering what are the intentions of the government and what it meansfor existing open data initiatives. Tom Steinberg from MySociety sits in the government's Transparency Board, but seems as in the dark as everyone else about the true intentions of the coalition on this. His view is that we may have to fight on this one as different interests within government pull in their direction with unpredictable results. You can follow the discussion here.

Other experienced activists, such as Chris Taggart, are worried about the involvement of the department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), and what "value for the taxpayer" means, a view reflected in several in specialised medioutlets. 

The Register sounds the alarm at the stated "opportunities for private investment in the corporation", which does not sound reassuring from the perspective of open government and transparency.

Open Source advocate and journalist Glyn Moody goes further and calls for public consultations, a view we share.

Simon Rogers, from The Guardian newspaper which has long been at the forefront of open data access, has a good summary of the issues and discussions, and joins in the call for more information while promising to chase this story with a much needed sense of urgency: "Because it sounds like we don't have much time".

This indeed may be the case, as according to the original business plan from the Cabinet Office, the Public Data Corporation should exist by April 2011.

The plan does not shed much more light on the government's intentions:

Drive release of high value datasets 

i. Work with BIS and HMT to create a Public Data Corporation

ii. Work with the Shareholder Executive to drive the release of core reference data for free re-use from the Public Data Corporation

So far we have not heard from the Treasury but we can -- maybe somewhat unfairly -- assume they are not in the least interested in Open Data and will press for revenue.

The Shareholder Executive is the “body within the British Government responsible for managing the government's financial interest in a range of public companies” *

The Shareholder Executive co-manage several of the trading funds responsible for high value data such as Ordnance Survey, Met Office and UK Hydrographic Office. They are also directly responsible for overseeing Royal Mail, nuclear energy, and the much criticised Export Credit Guarantee Department. 

Their stated priority is:

“to pursue the commercialisation, efficiency and examination of alternative ownership structures for core assets within the ShEx portfolio and advise on the possible sale of non-core assets”

It is not clear how this sits with driving the release of data for free reuse, but they have some experience from OS OpenData ™. If the PDC follows this model it could become a two tier system with some free data available, while other valuable stuff is sold as premium services.

The involvement of private investors in basic data provision rather than refined services developed in partnership could be very problematic, as it could weaken public ownership. Indeed, partnerships at any level could become an issue from the point of view of competition law and Public Sector Information Reuse Regulations, as they could be perceived as exclusivity contracts.

On the positive side, this move may finally generate an asset register for public information. If the focus widens from large corporate business it could provide a collaboration environment for two-way improvement of data, and drive innovation by linking smaller start-ups with larger companies that can scale up the ideas.

In general it seems that this announcement has caught many off guard after so many positive news around open data in the past two years: transparency board, data.gov.uk, Ordnance Survey OpenData ™, Open Government License, Right to data, etc.

This coincidentally happens in the same week as the French Agence du Patrimoine Immatériel de l'État (APIE) releases a study proposing a dual pricing model that includes charging for commercial use of data, raising concerns about the end of the honeymoon for Open Government Data.

We have written to Francis Maude asking for more information and a public consultation, given the interest on this issue and the spirit of transparency. We will keep you posted.