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Comment: controversy haunts transparency campaign



The head of the Medical Research Council today defended as a 'no brainer' the NHS's scheme to extract data from GP systems for re-use in clinical research. However the programme,, is currently in limbo following its postponement after a high-profile campaign to opt out attracted widespread attention. Its bungled launch is now in danger of becoming a reason to dilute further initiatives to open public sector data for re-use. has been cited twice this week as a cautionary tale. In its report Statistics and Open Data the House of Commons Public Administration Committee noted that the controversy "demonstrates the danger that concerns about privacy will unduly undermine the case for open data".

Meanwhile, in a response to government proposals on the future of Land Registry, the Law Society says that the commercial exploitation of registry data "should be reviewed in the light of the concerns expressed recently in the NHS project".

All this rams home the point that the campaign for open data is far from over - indeed that it is now facing its first real battle for hearts and minds. In their evidence to the Public Administration Select Committee, veteran observers pointed to a reluctance to put government rhetoric in to practice.

MySociety's Tom Steinberg suggested that "the enthusiasm that has been shown has come from a pretty small part of the government -- basically one or two ministers" with "resistance from all the other Ministers".

Consultant Owen Boswarva said that there was "a disconnect between the Cabinet Office's rhetoric on open data and practical implementation by key delivery departments." As an example, he said that the department for Business, Innovation and Skills had so far protected most of the "crown jewels" of public data from open data release.

The committee also failed to find much enthusiasm among the wider public. In a reference to communities secretary Eric Pickles' vision of citizen activism, it said "There is no sign of the promised emergence of an army of armchair auditors. There is little or no evidence that the Cabinet Office is succeeding in encouraging greater public engagement in using data to hold the public sector to account."

Its proposed solution is overcoming "departmental apathy and resistance" by treating open data as a major government programme in its own right. It recommends that: "The minister for the Cabinet Office should be given explicit responsibility for all aspects of open data policy, including the commercial aspects."

That is all well and good. However first, and particularly with a general election coming up, the general public - and in particular the chattering/Twittering classes - has to be brought on board. The debacle has made this an uphill struggle.



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