Update on the local spending data scandal… the empire strikes back
My blog post on Friday about the local spending information, the open data that isn’t, and the agreements that some councils seem to have struck with Spikes Cavell raised a flurry of tweets, emails, and a reassuringly fast response from the government’s Transparency Board.
It also, I’m told, generated a huge number of emails among the main protagonists – local and central government bureaucrats and private companies, who spent much of Friday and the weekend shoring up their position and planning counter attacks against those working for open data, and thus threatening the status quo.
It’s a dangerous game they’re playing, working against the ‘right to data’ policy of the government, but I guess they think their jobs are more important than that, and no doubt there will be further plotting at the LGA conference this week.
There was also a response from Spikes Cavell itself on the Information Age website. Adrian Short deals with most of the issues in the comments (his deconstruction is well worth reading), but here I wanted to widen the topic, just a little, to expand a little on why this agreement and other like them are so contrary to the principles of open data.
The problem with the Spikes Cavell deal comes not from any sort of fundamentalist approach to open data (e.g. you must use this method to publish, and only this method), but that such agreements go against the central point of open data – the openness and the benefits that can bring.
Because if open public data is about anything, it’s about equal access to the data for everyone – to allow them to draw their own conclusions from it and to use it make new websites and mashups. And, yes, to build businesses too.
However, the important distinction here is that such businesses are based solely on what value they can add to the data, and not whether you have privileged access. Sadly it seems as if Spikes Cavell’s business model is based on restricting access, not building on open data.
Lest we forget, Spikes Cavell is not an agent for change here, not part of those pushing to open public data, but in fact has a business model which seems to be predicated on data being closed, and the maintenance of the existing procurement model which has served us so badly.
Not convinced? How about this quote from the website of a similar company, BiP, who I mentioned in a post about public data held in private databases:
Public procurement is highly process orientated, and is subject to a wide range of legal requirements and best practice guidelines.
Our team of skilled and experienced consultants can help ensure public sector buyers become more effective when procuring and can also assist suppliers by providing in-depth advice on how to win public sector tenders.
So they are making a margin on both sides, and in the process preventing proper scrutiny. Why on earth would companies like this want open data?
And why on earth would the quangos that depend on those processes want open data – because that transparency threatens the cosy system that pays their wages, and has eaten up so many of the resources thrown at public services by the previous government.
So here we have an opportunity for the new administration to follow through its promises to reform the way that the public sector does business, and to start with putting a stop to deals like this one.