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June 14, 2013 | Javier Ruiz

Open Data: Government Responds to Shakespeare's Review

The government has responded to the independent review of Public Sector Information (PSI) carried out by Stephan Shakespeare, chair of the Data Strategy Board. Here are our first impressions.


A National Data Strategy?

The tone of the Government's response (PDF and ODT) is of general agreement, but without a clearcut commitment to embark on the open data supply revolution asked for by Shakespeare. There will be a process to define a “National Information Infrastructure” composed of the most important datasets held by Government. This is preferred to the term “core reference data”.

A new set of criteria published on data.gov.uk will be used to assess the usefulness and transformative potential of datasets. This is a very good approach, but there is no equivalent of the US executive order forcing departments to simply do it. There are long winded references to the new EU PSI directive that will come into force in 2015. The Transparency Team at the Cabinet Office is going to help departments apply those criteria to identify the key datasets. But the Transparency Team is already quite stretched, so it will be hard to do this without extra resources.

The government will also try to involve local authorities and other public bodies, but with the Trading Funds we can only expect incremental change. There are some good ideas regarding access for micro-businesses and non-profits including a commitment to allow them increased access to the Postcode Address File.

ORG has been campaigning for the file to be freely accessible and we welcome this as a positive step, while acknowledging there is more to be done:

Recognising the continued importance of the Postcode Address File (PAF) to private sector growth and the efficient running the public sector, we have agreed with Royal Mail that they will provide the PAF for free to independent micro-businesses for one year and to and independent small charitable organisations. Royal Mail will consult in July on a radical simplification of the licensing regime for all users.

Simplified governance of Open Data policy

The government promises to tackle the proliferation of open data responsibilities, so ironically the review may cost Shakespeare his post. The one concrete commitment so far is the merger of the Data Strategy Board with the Transparency Board. The remit, authority and oversight of the new board will be an important aspect of this policy until it becomes truly embedded in the departments.

Fuzzy response on privacy

The title of the response section on privacy is Maximising the benefit from personal data. There the government expresses agreement with Shakespeare’s general approach, which they claim is reflected in the UK government’s approach to the new EU Data Protection Regulation.

This approach is meant to balance privacy with growth and innovation. Unfortunately, the evidence in relation to the UK’s engagement with the Data Protection regulations is that protection of rights comes second to perceived business interests. The UK has consistently tried to undermine the progressive proposals in the original regulations.

The response provides few concrete proposals in this area though. This is not surprising given the complexity of privacy regulation and the processes already in place in Brussels. For example, Shakespeare asked for custodial sentences for data protection breaches, but the response is that these are already possible via other legislation, such as the Computer Misuse Act.

There are some worrying moves in relation to data-sharing among departments. The Law Commission is working on a scoping project to see if there are any real legal obstacles to the free flow of data across government. This is an area we will be watching closely.

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