Few openly argue against the cause, but there are issues around standards, data literacy and commercial confidentiality that stand in the way of open data becoming the norm in government
For some time now, government has followed the line that open data is a good thing. The vision is that if you make data freely available and reusable and you’ll get small armies of public servants, armchair auditors and livewire developers gaining insights and creating new services that will all be for the good of the taxpayer.
But as often happens, attempts to realise the vision are hindered by some awkward realities. At this week’s Open Data Summit there was flag waving and congratulations for projects that have worked, but also acknowledgement of barriers that will be difficult to dismantle.
It came out in a couple of presentations and in a discussion between leading figures of the Open Data Institute (ODI) and journalists. Some of the problems could be solved with time and effort, but there is also an entrenched attitude to data in some areas that probably won’t be changed without the sound of grinding teeth.
Standardisation is an obvious issue. The more consistency in formatting and presentation of data, the easier it will be to examine and re-use; but developing those standards takes a major effort.
Need for agreement
“Standards are always difficult,” said Sir Tim Berners-Lee, president of the ODI. “They involve agreeing to do something the same way as someone else, and if you’re an engineer it’s never as much fun as doing it by yourself.
“So they’re always hard work, involve talking to other people, take time, there’s no free lunch and you have to pick your battles.”
Deputy chief executive officer Jeni Tennison pointed out that data standards can be tied to a specific purpose, such as contracting, which can mean fewer people are involved. This makes it harder to find people to contribute, but once they are involved it is easier to find a consensus.
“The other thing is that data standards need to be oriented towards the consumers of the data,” she said. “It can be a challenge to identify those consumers, and unless you are already connected to them it can be hard to know what kind of data is needed.
“There are all kinds of places where there is a need for UK government to publish data but there is no existing standard they can just pick up. They have to make something up themselves and it requires research and modelling.”
The government has taken this on with the publication of the Government Service Design Manual and creation of its Standards Hub, which is currently in beta form; and the ODI is providing guidance with its Open Data Certificate scheme. It is all likely to be work in progress for some time, but recent words from Cabinet Office Minister Matt Hancock have indicated that the government is committed to the path.
Of course this all gets more complex if you want international standards – not a priority for developing national services, but crucial for benchmarking the performance of UK government and comparing trends with those overseas. There are no easy solutions, but the ODI has emphasised the certificates were developed with international franchises and are available in seven languages.
“It starts to put a wrapper around the process of publishing,” said chief executive Gavin Starks. While the demands of different countries can vary, it supports the first step of getting the data out there in a readable format.
There is also a question around the capability of public servants, and citizens, in using the data: even when it is out there, a relatively small minority knows how to give it some value.
It relates to the cause of building up data literacy throughout the public sector, and in the broader economy, but Tennison also suggested that the priority is just as much around creating tools that make it easy to access and use the data. It is not an unrealistic prospect – one that can be compared with the way millions of people have been able to use freely available platforms and templates to build their own websites.
Private sector question
Then comes the question that makes it more political: if the trend towards private sector enterprises delivering public services continues, will they have the same obligation to provide open data? A ‘no’ for the long term would amount to a serious shortfall in the campaign.
It is clear that the ODI is strongly in favour of the data being available when the private sector takes over the reins. Sir Nigel Shadbolt, co-founder of the ODI, said it is crucial that when the procurement is arranged the rights to the data should not go with the service.
“We’ve argued long and hard that where there is a data stream from a service delivered with taxpayer’s money it absolutely should be available as open data,” he said.
There is a strong argument that making the data open ensures that the next time the procurement comes around there will be a level playing field, and that the taxpayer will get the benefits of a more equal competition.
Is the government sympathetic towards this view? The response made it clear that open data advocates have to keep rearguing the case, especially as ministers inevitably move on to be replaced by those with little knowledge of the issue.
“It’s really important that we keep restating fundamental principles,” Shadbolt said. “I wouldn’t say we’ve had anyone say it’s a terrible idea, but we’ve got to get out there and argue the case that it’s a fundamental principle.”
It was clear that the ODI believes the ministerial incumbent, Matt Hancock, is on board, and there is no doubt that it has the government’s ear. But commercial confidentiality is a powerful force and the government has not been specific about the responsibilities of the major contractors.
This is not meant to be pessimistic; there has been significant progress, especially in the 20,000 datasets on gov.uk. But it will take time and plenty of arguments for the open data principle to permeate every area of service delivery.
Image by Jan Ainali (own work), CC0 via Wikimedia Commons