Community calls for free open data in consultation


The government published today their response to the consultation on a Public Data Group that will consolidate Ordnance Survey, Land Registry, Met Office and Companies House into a single data provider.

Charging for data: no decision yet

The responses to the proposals on charging models, showed that there is overwhelming support for freeing public data, particularly “raw data” that does not involved value added services. There were several hundred people who engaged with this question.

This level of response shows the strength and consistency of the reaction across a wide community, many of which would have been excluded had it not been for the outreach efforts of ORG and user-friendly sites such as Such a uniform reaction — particularly coming from the innovators and civil society — shows that the existing models are increasingly failing to deliver, and that further moves will need to be made if the stated aims of increasing civil involvement and fostering innovation are to be achieved.

The government will now have to continue thinking about it and report back at the end of 2012. This is actually a victory, and it means that the open data community has more time to ensure that we get a political response to a political issue from elected politicians, rather than being asked to produce yet more economic evidence.

The other proposed changes to actual data policy that we were consulted on: licensing, etc. work as predicted. There will be some improvements to bring more consistency with the Open Government License, and more stable terms and conditions. 

Data Strategy Board

There are no big surprises in terms of the structural changes proposed; the trading funds will continue selling data albeit in a more streamlined fashion, and a new Data Strategy Board will act as a public customer and promoter of open data. The DSB will be responsible for negotiating data supply for internal government use, and will advise each department on making the best deals. It will incorporate existing user groups for geodata and weather data, already dealing with similar issues, so it should start on its feet ready to run. The existing Public Weather Service Customer Group  is in charge of authorising payments from BIS to the Met Office. The DSB will have the mandate to audit the accounts of PDG members in relation to public sector contracts. In general, this public function of data commissioning of the DSB seems a sensible step, but the other half of its mission around opening up data is more problematic.

The Data Strategy Board will be given £7 Million (from savings made by bringing together the trading funds) to buy back data to be opened. This appeared to many people we involved in the previous consultation a circular waste of time and resources, while in other countries such as Spain and Norway government just makes a decision to open data and gets on with it. After all, the estimated £50 Million yearly cost of opening all this data is around a third of the price tag of a modern fighter jet.

Accepting that this was the only way to advance on open data, the DSB will not actually decide how to spend that money, instead advising Ministers on commissioning free data without any apparent executive capacity. It will require a huge effort for this arrangement not to be derailed by short term considerations. We also need more clarity on how this will be carried forward in a sustainable process that incorporates future releases that maintain the quality of the data, let alone improvements. The obvious solution of hypothecating profits from sales of data into some ring-fenced open data fund was mentioned in the consultation responses, but not taken into account. Instead the DSB will advice ministers to negotiate for more funds in successive spending reviews, which in politic-speak for level of commitment is very little.

Even if as we hope the DSB manages to raise its head in dignity instead of being reduced to squabbling over how to spend government’s spare change, it is difficult to see where is the Open Data Strategy at work in DSB. The DSB will be in charge of evaluating the success of open data policies, such as OS Opendata, and writing business cases for more open data, but this risks becoming a never ending story. Only last week we were in Rotterdam in a EU sponsored event, where it was repeated a zillion times that the case for open data in terms of value to society is done and dusted, and that the EPSI Platform and other websites have all the studies and business cases. However, UK officials involved in the PDG keep saying a-la John Cleese that they want to see a solid economic model and that there is no real evidence for open data. How is the DSB going to break this political impasse? Ordnance Survey has been sitting on their own analysis of OS Opendata for months without publishing it. 

ORG’s view is that the PDG and DSG should be seen as transitional arrangements to allow public bodies time to change, and a first step in a real Strategy of moving towards a free national public data infrastructure – although given today’s announcement of the privatisation of major roads, we may need to start looking for a better analogy.

In the meantime, it will be important to see who will chair the DSB. The board will be run under BIS, specifically reporting to David Willets – Minister for Universities, but the Cabinet Office will appoint the chair. There will be a 30% quota for representatives of interests outside government, and it may make a difference who sits there representing open data reusers: start-ups or big businesses happy to pay for data if conditions are consistent. 

A newly created Open Data User Group will channel the demand for free data into the DSB and will have a seat in the DSB. This will involve public and external users, but last time we checked nobody knew who will be there, nor the balance between commercial, public sector and civic users. We know the idea is to engage as wide as possible, which is great, but in the end you have to decide on a limited shopping list, and the “open data community” seems to include anything from Google to teenagers hacking their smartphones. Independent developers and civic users should engage with the ODUG, if only to ensure it is not dominated by the voices of big commercial PSI users. It already has a Twitter account – @odugUK – and an interactive website.

And what should be our role here? There is a place in the board for a “Representative of Open Data campaign groups”. Should ORG try to fight from the inside?