Open data and all that

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

with 10 comments

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

10 Responses

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Glyn Moody,
    Rob, Martin Moore and others. Martin Moore said: People right to be
    sceptical abt Public Data Corporation – says @countculture > supporters of #opendata must get stuck
    in […]

  2. Chris

    Thanks for this article. The Public Data Corporation sounds like the British Broadcasting Corporation.

    It sounds just as likely to exhibit monopoly behaviours, a tendency to charge for licences, bureaucratic attitudes and innovation-aversion disorder.


    January 17, 2011 at 4:26 pm

  3. Hi Chris

    Thanks for this excellent article and to you and Tom Steinberg for issuing a ‘call to arms’. Like everyone else, I don’t know what the PDC will turn out to be, but my first response is definitely to be worried that it might crush the green shoots of open data starting to sprout around the public sector.

    As you say, starting to charge for selected public data is a retrograde step – I thought with the excellent work of the Ordnance Survey that that argument had been won.

    And I fear that a centralised approach to data publishing will give the reluctant an excuse – they can say “it’s the PDC’s problem, not mine”, while simultaneously making it more difficult for enthusiasts and visionaries, whether in government, private sector or individuals, to ‘just do it’.

    I think it was you that tweeted the other day that there’s an air of Ministry of Truth around the PDC announcements so far. I really hope it won’t turn out that way and will take what opportunities I can to make those arguments to anyone who might be able to influence the outcome of this.


    Bill Roberts

    January 19, 2011 at 4:12 pm

  4. […] is why people are so concerned about the Public Data Corporation. This is why we need to be monitoring exactly what spending data councils release, and in what […]

  5. Dear Chris Taggart
    I would like to be in contact with you regarding your fantastic Openly Local Can you arrange a email contact?
    Best regards
    José Carlos Mota

    José Carlos Mota

    February 11, 2011 at 12:07 pm

    • it’s countculture at gmail dot com


      February 11, 2011 at 12:20 pm

  6. […] was made I tried to be optimistic; however, many others – such as Openly Local’s Chris Taggart – expressed […]

  7. […] also intriguing that it comes in the apparent burying of the Public Data Corporation, which got just a holding statement in the budget, and no mention at all in Osborne’s […]

  8. […] 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. […]

  9. […] a Public Data Corporation but has been vague about what it will actually be and do. There is general bemusement and some suspicion in the blogosphere. And into the vacuum of knowledge I have decided to pour the jaded cyniscism of a public relations […]

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