The open spending data that isn’t… this is not good
When the coalition announced that councils would have to publish all spending over £500 by January next year, there’s been a palpable excitement in the open data and transparency community at the thought of what could be done with it (not least understanding and improving the balance of councils’ relationships with suppliers).
Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government Eric Pickles followed this up with a letter to councils saying, “I don’t expect everyone to do it right first time, but I do expect everyone to do it.” Great. Raw Data Now, in the words of Tim-Berners Lee.
Now, however, with barely the ink dry, the reality is looking not just a bit messy, a bit of a first attempt (which would be fine and understandable given the timescale), but Not Open At All.
As a member of the Local Public Data Panel, I’ve worked with other members and councils to draw up some clear and pragmatic draft guidelines for publishing the local spending data. We’ve had a great response in the comments and in conversations, and together with some lessons I did on importing the existing data, I think these will allow us to do a second draft soon.
One thing we weren’t explicit in that first draft – because we took it for granted – was that the data had to be open, and free for reuse by all. Equality of access by all is essential.
So I’ve been watching the activities of Spikes Cavell’s SpotlightOnSpend with some wariness and now those fears seem to have been borne out, as the company seems to set out not to consume the open data that councils are publishing, but to control this data.
The idea seems to be that councils should give Spikes Cavell privileged access to their detailed invoice information, which the company then adds to their proprietry and definitely non-open database, and then publishes an extract of this information on the SpotlightOnSpend website. Exactly what information they get, and under what terms isn’t disclosed anywhere.
The website’s got most of the buzzwords: transparency, accessible, efficiency. It’s even got a friendly .org.uk domain. If that’s not enough to convince councils, liberally sprinkled around the site is an apparent endorsement from the Secretary of State himself:
I’m really excited about the opportunities of transparency and it’s something this government is utterly committed to. spotlightonspend demonstrates that, when innovative businesses work with far-sighted public bodies, we can inform the public, reduce costs and improve democracy both locally and nationally.
However, when you go to the data and click on the download link this is what you get:
Note the “This data is for your personal use only” (not to mention the fact that the use of a captcha’ to screen out machines downloading the data means, er, you can’t use machines to automatically download the data, which is sort of the point of publishing the data in a machine-readable way).
Never mind, surely you can just head over to the council’s website and download the data from there? No chance. This is what you get on the Guildford website:
You can search and view this financial data using a new Spotlight on Spend national website. Just follow the link found in the offsite links section of this page.
What about Mole Valley Council:
This data is now available on the spotlight on spend website. You can look at categories and individual suppliers to see how much has been spent in each area or you can download all the data to see individual transactions.
But what about Windsor & Maidenhead, who are closely affiliated with the project, and who are publishing data on their website? Well, download the data from SpotlightOnSpend and it’s rather different from the published data. Different in that it is missing core data that is in W&M published data (e.g. categories), and that includes data that isn’t in the published data (e.g. data from 2008).
So the upshot seems to be this, councils hand over all their valuable financial data to a company which aggregates for its own purposes, and, er, doesn’t open up the data, shooting down all those goals of mashing up the data, using the community to analyse and undermining much of the good work that’s been done.
It’s worth linking here to the Open Knowledge Foundation’s draft guidelines on reporting of Government Finances (disclosure: I helped draw them up), of which the first point is ‘Make data openly available using an explicit license’. And let me be absolutely clear here: this is not open data, not a desirable approach, will not achieve the results of transparency or of equality of access, and is not good for the public sector.
I’m hoping this is a matter of councils and the Secretary of State not understanding the process and implications of giving this data to Spikes Cavell on a privileged basis. If not, perhaps it could be the first test case for the newly setup of Public Sector Transparency Board to rule on.
Update: With lightning fast speed, the Transparency Board has issued a statement about this issue reiterating the open data principles, and saying that measures are taking place to rectify the problem.
There are many questions remaining, not least the nature of the relationship with Spikes Cavell, and the undesirability about their privileged access to the information, but the Board should be congratulated for their quick reaction to the situation, and bodes well for the future issues that will undoubtedly come up.
In the meantime, I’ll keep on the case, and update with blog/tweet as I get more information