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October 27, 2011

Public Data Corporation

Public information and private investment

Reform of the trading funds providing public sector information is a welcome initiative. However, Open Rights Group has conducted extensive consultations with the open data community and we have received a clear and unequivocal message: the PDC in its current shape is a missed opportunity and huge step backwards.

The consultation on a “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 generating revenue and private investment.

The objective of attracting private investment into the production of core data as it is presented in the consultation paper undermines the very basis of public sector information.

A red line for campaigners and advocates of open data is that any private involvement must not affect the status of the data that falls under PSI Regulations.

The 2009 Operational Efficiency Programme review of the trading funds, where the desirability of private investment is assessed [i] does not appear to be updated to reflect wider policies on public data as explained below. The OEP already proved problematic in its failure to consider wider aspects of changes to the Forestry Commission and the sale of public forests. We believe a similar mistake is taking place with the narrow considerations applied to data trading funds, and that public opposition will mount against the privatisation of public data infrastructure.

The PDC and the open data agenda

The basic raw data held by OS, Met Office and Land Registry in the provision of their public tasks is key public data infrastructure, and must be free and open in order to enable the rest of the Open Data and transparency agenda of the coalition government. The trading funds under the PDC, and data generating trading funds generally, produce the basic data necessary for the construction of the much-vaunted “open data ecosystem” that will enable innovation and transformation of public services.

The PDC has to be put in the wider policy context where the coalition government has clearly committed to opening up public data. Section 16 of the Coalition Agreement[ii] is the basis for this policy, which has been signed up by both parties in government.

The proposed PDC is fundamentally incompatible with the Coalition Agreement and the Making Open Data Real consultation run simultaneously by the Cabinet Office; it is incompatible with the Public Data Principles[iii] endorsed by government -- and every other commitment to opening data made by the coalition. Right to Data must also reach the type of data under consideration in the PDC.

The Making Open Data real consultation rightly points at legacy ICT systems as an obstacle to lowering the costs of transparency, but the underlying core reference data can be a problem of similar magnitude.

One example is the internal use by councils of the expensive OS Mastermap, under the local mapping agreement, which means that releasing open geographical information will require conversion to an open reference map. This will make a lot more difficult and costly the local authorities’ increasing open data obligations.

At a more fundamental level, much public sector information proposed for inclusion in the PDC has intrinsic social and democratic value. The most obvious example is the Land Registry, which could show patterns of concentration of property and the socioeconomic effects.

In addition, the European Commission is currently reviewing the Public Sector Information regulations, and preliminary reports indicate that the recommendations will be to reduce charging for public data[iv]. The proposed PDC, with its focus on generating income from PSI, appears to go against the general direction of policy and thinking about public data not only in UK but also at European level. We expect that any major changes would wait for the review of PSI regulations later in the year.

Our recommendation would be to bring the data trading funds under a single comprehensive National Public Data Policy based on the Public Data Principles already endorsed by government. We also support the Transparency Board’s guidelines for data trading funds[v], and we believe these should form the basis for the next stage of the process in defining the new body:

(1) a clear, unambiguous primary mission to maximise the overall contribution of data and services to economic growth, innovation, public service improvement and efficiency (this is as opposed to a primary mission, implicit or explicit, to generate revenues)

(2) a clear commitment to release more and more of their data as Open Data over time, and a credible road map for doing so

(3) a governance structure which clearly gives primacy to the long term public interest

(4) business models which ensures the production of data of appropriate quality to meet user needs, which allow the for evolution of data products to suit changing needs over time, while maintaining the solvency of the trading funds.

(5) a structure which protects the vital national interest in the data especially core reference sets, but which creates real downward pressure on costs.

Access, licensing and release

The consultation 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.

Our view is that the wider government policy on public data should apply. This means that any public organisation, including trading funds and the PDC, should provide a detailed case as to why a particular dataset is not to be released under Open Government License. Only then the proposals presented in the consultation document should apply.

The PDC governance model and practice will prove critical to ensure data producing public bodies function like the rest of the public sector when it comes to open data and transparency. Participation of external stakeholders, such as advocacy groups, in the governing body will be important.

Pricing models

The consultation presents a very narrow set of options for pricing. 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.

It is also unhelpful for an informed debate to present as a valid option a profit maximisation model, 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.

We are particularly concerned that the option of providing free raw data funded by the exchequer AND charging for value added services is not on the table.  This is an inexplicable omission.

The main pricing options presented fall short of our aspirations for the sector.

Maintaining the status quo of the trading funds would be a missed opportunity, but as we explained above, a vague commitment to open data is not compatible with a hard imperative to close data by involving commercial actors in the core activities of the PDC. The PDC must be given a strong clear mandate to open up 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.

We cannot support the proposed Freemium option in relation to PSI regulated (public task/raw/unrefined) data. Generally, the main reason this business model is applied is to generate market growth and drive customers to paid options. Here it appears a clumsy attempt to balance a certain level of openness with closed commercial sale of data.

If nevertheless a Freemium model was to be created it should respect a minimum set of core civic principles:

 

  • all PDC data to be free including reuse for non-commercial purposes
  • key datasets with higher social value to be free and fully open for re-use without restrictions
  • any sort of freemium model that frustrates civic use of open data is unacceptable

The EU PSI review consultation carried out in 2010 came overwhelmingly in favour of free data, particularly for non-commercial use [vi], and as we mentioned above the European Commission supports the reduction of charges for PSI. Stimulating re-use is perceived as the key objective. 

Figure 1  Online consultation of stakeholders of PSI directive

Following from the Transparency Board guidelines, the overall principle should be to increase free open data to promote re-use. The introduction of more consistent pricing should concentrate on the minority of value added (not regulated by the EU PSI legislation) data products and services that will not be made freely available.

Regulation

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

When it comes to the regulatory framework, the consultation expressly limits the discussion to PDC specific functions (charging for data). However, it is difficult to see how this can happen in practice, without discussing the overall framework.

The Office for Public Sector Information appears to already be in charge of helping public bodies prepare their public task statements, so creating a new body to do this for trading funds would be a duplication of efforts.

The Transparency Board is already charged with making more data available and we can see no reason for trading funds to be given special status and be placed outside.

The regulation of unfair pricing would already be responsibility of the Office of Fair Trading and the OPSI, so in reality that would be the regulator of the PDC’s commercial activity.

The development of a sustainable business model based on open data is surely something that each organisation will have to do. The PDC may be a centre of excellence and advise other bodies, but insofar as it doesn’t detract from the data related public tasks of the current trading funds.

 


[i] http://www.hmg.gov.uk/media/52715/oep-assetportfolio.pdf

[ii]http://www.direct.gov.uk/prod_consum_dg/groups/dg_digitalassets/@dg/@en/documents/digitalasset/dg_187876.pdf

[iii] http://data.gov.uk/blog/new-public-sector-transparency-board-and-public-data-transparency-principles

[iv] http://epsiplatform.eu/content/ec-vp-kroes-standardization-and-open-data

[v] http://data.gov.uk/blog/transparency-board-urges-widest-possible-response-to-consultations

[vi] http://www.scribd.com/doc/51907158/Full-Report-Online-Consultation-of-Stakeholders