March 14, 2012 | Javier Ruiz

Response to Open Data article in The Guardian

The Guardian published quite a good article today in relation to a public announcement on Open Data by Francis Maude, and we wrote a response highlighting some issues they missed:


 While the advances since 2006 are undeniable, the comment above shows there is a long way to go. The new Public Data Group that will amalgamate OS, Land Registry and some other data providers will perpetuate the monopoly model while giving away minor data concessions. The issue here is the basic core public data infrastructure (mapping, stats, etc.) required for every other service and open data project. This is the "too difficult" box that could hamper innovation beyond some college project apps.

 So far Google Maps has allowed many open data projects to exist, but as we see in the recent privacy policy debates free is not "free", the price is that users must feed their personal data for the machine to work.

This brings another critical issue with the current government's Open Data agenda. There is an unhealthy conflation of transparency, data on public services and personal data, all of which converge towards the "Open for Business" principle.

Transparency of government has not advanced because now you can get data instead of paper print outs. In our area of digital issues and copyright, policy is being carried out with the same influence of lobbyists hiding behind commercial confidentiality in order to refuse Freedom of Information requests.

Public scrutiny of data on public services, such as hospitals and schools, is very welcome and can indeed save lives. But in the government's Open Public Services agenda this data would mostly enable an open market of qualified providers, without concrete commitments from public bodies and clear mechanisms for improving outcomes. Recent NHS debates show that this model is very controversial to say the least.

Personal data was not part of the original Free Our Data campaign but it is becoming a central pillar of the policy. This ranges from sharing medical records with pharmaceutical companies to opening up data on welfare and benefits. While some of these initiatives are not strictly open data, as they will have restrictions on access, they are being thrown in the same policy bag. Despite assurances that personal data will be anonymised, there is almost complete consensus in the tech community that this is not possible in an open environment. 

 Beyond individual privacy, we could question the legitimacy of seeing Public Big Data - composed of millions of individual digital breadcrumbs - as simply an economic asset to be shared with the likes of Experian. Instead we should see it as a common treasure trove that should be democratically governed towards the public good.


The Open Rights Group will be discussing some of this issues in our forthcoming conference ORGCON 2012, come along!