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The Public Data Corporation vs Good Governance

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As I feared back when it was first announced, the proposed UK Public Data Corporation has got nothing to do with open data, and everything to do with protecting the interests of a few civil servants, turning back the open data clock to the dark ages of derived data and privileged access for the few.

However, the issue I’d like to focus on here, having last week attended a workshop on the PDC consultation is governance. [It's worth mentioning that I was the only one at the workshop without a stake in the existing public sector information structure, telling in itself.] And far from it being a dry, academic, wonkish subject, it is critical to the future of public data in the UK.

The reason this is so contentious is twofold:

  • The consultation on the PDC has been drawn very narrowly, trying to get respondants to choose between a set of options that are all bad for open data, and ultimately democracy. “So, open data, would you like a bullet to the back of the head, or to be slowly drained of blood?”
  • There are clear conflicts of interest between the wider interests of society, and those of the Shareholder Executive – the trading funds such as the Ordnance Survey and Land Registry who are the very roadblock that open data is supposed to clear, but yet who crucially seem to be driving the PDC.
    Now, from their perspective, I can see the appeal of keeping everything cosy and tight, particularly if there’s a chance the organisations being floated off, and with it considerable personal enrichment. But public policy shouldn’t be driven by the personal interests of civil servants, but what is in the interests of society as a whole.

In fact, the governance of the Public Data Corporation, and the rules by which it operates were the one thing that everyone at the workshop I attended agreed upon. In fact more than that, it was agreed that the delivery of its duties should be separate both from the principles by which it operates (which should be for the benefit of society) and the independent body that needs to ensure it sticks to those principles.

But here’s the kicker, the Transition Board for the PDC (which will oversee its membership, structure and governance) is, I understand, meeting on October 25, two days before the consultation ends.

When I asked this meeting, and whether the consultation was a done deal, I was told, “The governance of the PDC is not being consulted on.”

This is both rather shocking, and shameful, and for me means there’s only one viable option if the UK is serious about open data: to send the whole PDC concept back to the drawing board, and this time to come up with a solution that is focused not on civil servants’ narrow personal interests, but on building a ‘more open, more fair and more prosperous‘ society (to quote the Chancellor).

Written by countculture

October 10, 2011 at 11:53 am

My response to the UK Open Data consultation

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Today, I submitted my response to the UK Cabinet Office’s  Open Data Consultation,”Making Open Data Real”, and this is it.

I have been dealing at the sharp end of open data for a couple of years now, co-founding OpenCorporates and founding OpenlyLocal, both of which have massively increased the availability of company and UK local data respectively, and, I hope, in some tiny way have helped give the UK its worldwide reputation of leading the way in open data.

Through sitting on the Local Public Data Panel and countless other government programmes and meetings, I’ve also encountered local and central government bureaucracy in the raw. I’ve seen in detail how too often the bureaucracy subverts complex rules drawn up with the best of intentions to stifle innovation, exclude the most important ‘stakeholders’ of all (the people), and reward those behind big, multimillion-pound projects with promotion and further contracts.

All this experience has, I think, led me to a fairly comprehensive understanding of the issues, the blockages, the hype and the potential of open data. And it is with this understanding that I am responding to the consultation.

The truth is, like it or not, we now live in a ‘Big Data’ world, where our lives are not just governed by data but are data, from bank accounts to loyalty cards, smart phones to smart meters, televisions to travel cards. Even those who have never been on the internet are producing bucketfuls of data as they shop, watch, or catch the bus using free travel cards for the elderly and disabled.

Yet their access to data, both the data they produce and that is produced on their behalf by government and the public sector, is fundamentally restricted. Not only do they have no access to many of the datasets that affects their lives, those who are innovating to help them make sense of it are fatally hobbled by open access to the core public datasets which underly our modern world – for example, geographic data, company data, health data, and democratic & electoral data.

Public sector data is still being treated as an asset to be sold, rather than an underlying infrastructure of a modern democratic society, and with this approach people and the innovators who seek to empower them are marginalised and disenfranchised.

That is why the risk here is not of making changes, but of making no changes, and why what is needed is not a set of rules to be gamed and worked around by the existing ‘stakeholders’ (who after all have a stake in preserving their existing, out-of-date business models), but a core set of principles.

Open data is no silver bullet, and won’t on its own solve these problems, but it is an essential requirement for a ‘more open, more fair and more prosperous‘ society.

Fortunately the consultation provides such a set in Annex 2 of the consultation (The Public Sector Data Principles). These should be issued to every government department, quango, health authority and public sector body (including the PDC), with the order to follow them in letter and spirit. Backing these up, we also need an independent body needs to be appointed with the power and resources to enforce them. With these two things – good public principles, and an effective enforcer – we have a chance to achieve the innovation and fairer society we need.

Chris Taggart

CEO & Co-Founder OpenCorporates
Founder OpenlyLocal
Member of Local Public Data Panel
Member of Mayor of London’s Digital Advisor

Written by countculture

October 6, 2011 at 11:35 am

When Washington DC took a step back from open data & transparency

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When the amazing Emer Coleman first approached me a year and a half to get feedback on the plans for the London datastore,  I told her that the gold standard for such datastores was that run by the District of Columbia, in the US. It wasn’t just the breadth of the data; it was that DC seemed to have integrated the principles of open data right into its very DNA.

And we had this commitment in mind that when we were thinking which were the US jurisdictions we’d scrape first for OpenCorporates, whose simple (but huge) goal is to build an open global database of every registered company in the world.

While there were no doubt many things that the DC company registry could be criticised for (perhaps it was difficult for the IT department to manage, or problematic for the company registry staff), for the visitors who wanted to get the information it worked pretty well.

What do I mean by worked well? Despite or perhaps because it was quite basic, it meant you could use any browser (or screenreader, for those with accessibility issues) to search for a company and to get the information about it.

It also had a simple, plain structure, with permanent URLs for each company, meaning search engines could easily find the data, so that if you search for a company name on Google there’s a pretty good chance you’ll get a link to the right page. This also means other websites can ‘deep-link’ to the specific company, and that links could be shared by people, in social networking, emails, whatever.

Finally, it meant that it was easy to get the information out of the register, by browsing or by scraping (we even used the scraper we wrote on ScraperWiki as an example of how to scrape a straightforward company register as part of our innovative bounty program).

It was, for the most part, what a public register should be, with the exception of providing a daily dump of the data under an open licence.

So it was a surprise a couple of weeks ago to find that they had redone the website, and taken a massive step back, essentially closing the site down to half the users of the web, and to those search engines and scrapers that wanted to get the information in order to make it more widely available.

In short it went from being pretty much open, to downright closed. How did they do this? First they introduced a registration system. Now, admittedly, it’s a pretty simple registration process, and doesn’t require you to submit any personal details. I registered as ‘Bob’ with a password of ‘password’ just fine. But as well as adding friction to the user experience, it also puts everything behind the signup out of the reach of search engines. Really dumb. Here’s the Google search you get now (a few weeks ago there were hundreds of thousands of results):

The other key point about adding a registration system is that the sole reason is to be able to restrict access to certain users. Let me repeat that, because it goes to the heart of the issue about openness and transparency, and why this is a step back from both by the District of Columbia: it allows them to say who can and can’t see the information.

If open data and transparency is about anything, it’s about giving equal access to information no matter who you are.

The second thing they did was build a site that doesn’t work for those who don’t use Internet Explorer 7 and above, including those who used screenreaders. That’s right. In the year 2011, when even Microsoft are embracing web standards, they decided to ditch them, and with them nearly half the web’s users, and all those who used screenreaders (Is this even allowed? Not covered by Americans With Disabilities Act?).

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been in an email dialogue with the people in the District of Columbia behind the site, to try to get to the bottom of this, and the bottom seems to be, that the accessibility of the site, the ability for search engines to index it, and for people to reuse the data isn’t a priority.

In particular it isn’t a priority compared with satisfying the needs of their ‘customers’, meaning those companies that file their information (and perhaps more subtly those companies whose business models depend on the data being closed). Apparently some of the companies had complained that they were being listed, contacted and or solicited without their approval.

That’s right, the companies on the public register were complaining that their details were public. Presumably they’d really rather nobody had this information. We’re talking about companies here, remember, who are supposed to thrive or fail in the brutal world of the free market, not vulnerable individuals.

It’s worth mentioning here that this tendency to think that the stakeholders (hate that word) are those you deal with day-to-day is a pervasive problem in government in all countries, and is one of the reasons why they are failing to benefit from open data the way they should and failing too to retool and restructure for the modern world.

Sure, we can work around these restrictions and probably figure out a way to scrape the data, but it’s a sad day to see one of the pioneers of openness and transparency take such a regressive step. What’s next? Will the DC datastore take down its list of business licence holders, or maybe the DC purchase order data, all of which could be used for making unsoliticited requests to these oversensitive and easily upset businesses?

p.s. Apparently this change was in response to an audit report, which I’ve asked for a copy of but which hasn’t yet been sent to me. Any sleuthing or FOI requests gratefully received.

p.p.s. I also understand there’s also new DC legislation that’s been recently been passed that require further changes to the website, although again the details weren’t given to me, and I haven’t had time to search the DC website for them

Written by countculture

June 7, 2011 at 1:39 pm

What’s that coming over the hill, is it… the Public Data Corporation?

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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.

As Tom Steinberg (a member of the Transparency Board) wrote in a thread about the PDC on MySociety developer mailing list “

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.

Written by countculture

January 14, 2011 at 2:04 pm

New feature: one-click FoI requests for spending payments

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Thanks to the incredible work of Francis Irving at WhatDoTheyKnow, we’ve now added a feature I’ve wanted on OpenlyLocal since we started imported the local spending data: one-click Freedom of Information requests on individual spending items, especially those large ones.

This further lowers the barriers to armchair auditors wanting to understand where the money goes, and the request even includes all the usual ‘boilerplate’ to help avoid specious refusals. I’ve started it off with one to Wandsworth, whose poor quality of spending data I discussed last week.

And this is the result, the whole process having taken less than a minute:

The requests are also being tagged. This means that in the near future you’ll be able to see on a transaction page if any requests have already been made about it, and the status of those requests (we’re just waiting for WDTK to implement search by tags), which will be the beginning of a highly interconnected transparency ecosystem.

In the meantime it’s worth checking the transaction hasn’t been requested before confirming your request on the WDTK page (there’s a link to recent requests for the council on the WDTK form you get to after pressing the button).

I’m also trusting the community will use this responsibly, digging out information on the big stuff, rather than firing off multiple requests to the same council for hundreds of individual items (which would in any case probably be deemed vexatious under the terms of the FoI Act). At the moment the feature’s only enabled on transactions over £10,000.

Good places to start would be those multi-million-pound monthly payments which indicate big outsourcing deals, or large redacted payments (Birmingham’s got a few). Have a look at the spending dashboard for your council and see if there are any such payments.

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