What’s that coming over the hill, is it… the Public Data Corporation?
A couple of days ago, there was a brief announcement from the UK Government of plans for a new Public Data Corporation, which would “bring together Government bodies and data into one organisation”.
A good thing, no? Well, up to a point, Lord Copper.
I tweeted after the announcement: “Is it just me, or does the tone of the Public Data Corp make any other #opendata types uneasy?” From the responses, I clearly wasn’t the only one, and in my discussions since then it’s clear there’s a lot of nervousness out there.
So, what is it, and should we be afraid? The answers are ‘Nobody knows’, and ‘Yes’.
To flesh that out a bit, none of the open data activists and developers that I’ve spoken to knows what it is, or what the real motivation is, and remember these are the people who did much to get us into a place where the UK government has declared that the public has a ‘Right To Data’ and that the excellent ‘Open Government Licence‘ should be the default licence.
In that context, the announcement of a ‘Public Data Corporation’ should be be treated with some wariness.
However, this wariness turns into suspicion, when you read the press release.
First the announcement is a joint one from the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude (who seems to very much get the need for open public data in the changed world in which we live) and from Business Minister Edward Davey, who I know nothing about, but his department BIS (Dept of Business, Innovation & Skills) has very much not been pushing for open data, and in fact has in the past refused to make data it oversees openly available.
(My sources tell me the proposal in fact originated from BIS, and thus could be seen as an attempt by the incumbents to co-opt the open data agenda, as a way of shutting it down, smothering it if you like.)
Second, despite the upbeat headline “Public Data Corporation to free up public data and drive innovation” (Shock horror: org states its aim is to innovate & be successful), the text contains a number of worrying statements:
- “By bringing valuable Government data together, governed by a consistent set of principles around data collection, maintenance, production and charging[my emphasis], the Government can share best practice, drive efficiencies and create innovative public services for citizens and businesses. The Public Data Corporation will also provide real value for the taxpayer.“
The idea of ‘value for the taxpayer’ is the same old stuff that got us into the unholy mess of trading funds, and the gordian knot of the Ordnance Survey licence wich is still being unpicked. This nearly always translates as value we can measure in £s, which in turn means what income we’ve got coming in (even if it’s from other public sector bodies).
- “It will provide stability and certainty for businesses and entrepreneurs, attracting the investment these operations need to maintain their capabilities and drive growth in the economy” – quote from Edward Davey.
If I were a cynic I’d say stability and certainty translates to stagnation and rent-seeking businesses, which may be music to civil servants’ ears but does nothing to help innovation. We’re in a rapidly changing world. Get over it.
- “bringing valuable Government data together, governed by a consistent set of principles around data collection, maintenance, production and charging”.
If this is the PDC’s mandate I think it could end up focused on the last of these, short-sighted though that would be.
- “It will also provide opportunities for private investment in the corporation.”
Great. A conflicting priority, to delight the bureaucrats and muddy the focus. Keep it small, keep it simple, keep it agile.
Finally, there’s no mention of open data, no mention of the Open Government Licence, the Transparency Board and only one mention of transparency, and that’s in Francis Maude’s quote.
If you’re a natural cynic, you’ll just say the government has already decided to flog everything off to the highest bidder. If you adopt that position, and give up without a fight, the people in Whitehall and the trading funds who want to do that will almost certainly win.
However, if you believe me when I say things are finely balanced, that either side could win, and enough well-organised external pressure could really make a difference over the next year, then you won’t just bitch, you’ll get stuck in.
He’s not wrong there. We’ve got perhaps 6 months to make this story turn out good for open data, and good for the wider community, and I suspect that means some messy battles along the way, forcing government to take the right path rather than slide into its bad old habits, perhaps with some key datasets, which should undoubtedly be public open data, but are currently under a restrictive licence.
I’ve got a couple in my sights. Watch this space.