countculture

Open data and all that

Posts Tagged ‘gov2.0

George Osborne’s open data moment: it’s the Treasury, hell yeah

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As a bit of an outsider, reading the government’s pronouncements on open data feels rather like reading official Kremlin statements during the Cold War. Sometimes it’s not what they’re saying, it’s who’s saying it that’s important.

And so it is, I think, with George Osborne’s speech yesterday morning at Google Zeitgeist, at which he stated, “Our ambition is to become the world leader in open data, and accelerate the accountability revolution that the internet age has unleashed“, and “The benefits are immense. Not just in terms of spotting waste and driving down costs, although that consequence of spending transparency is already being felt across the public sector. No, if anything, the social and economic benefits of open data are even greater.

This is strong, and good stuff, and that it comes from Osborne, who’s not previously taken a high profile position on open data and open government, leaving that variously to the Cabinet Office Minister, Francis Maude, Nick Clegg & even David Cameron himself.

It’s 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 speech.

But more than that it shows the Treasury taking a serious interest for the first time, and that’s both to be welcomed, and feared. Welcomed, because with open data you’re talking about sacrificing the narrow interests of small short-term fiefdoms (e.g. some of the Trading Funds in the Shareholder Executive) for the wider interest; you’re also talking about building the essential foundations for the 21st century. And both of these require muscle and money.

It also overseas a number of datasets which have hitherto been very much closed data, particularly the financial data overseen by the Financial Services Authority, the Bank of England and even perhaps some HMRC data, and I’ve started the ball rolling by scraping the FSA’s Register of Mutuals, which we’ve just imported into OpenCorporates, and tying these to the associated entries in the UK Register of Companies.

Feared, because the Treasury is not known for taking prisoners, still less working with the community. And the fear is that rather than leverage the potential that open data allows for a multitude of  small distributed projects (many of which will necessarily and desirably fail), rather than use the wealth of expertise the UK has built up in open data, they will go for big, highly centralised projects.

I have no doubt, the good intentions are there, but let’s hope they don’t do a Team America here (and this isn’t meant as a back-handed reference to Beth Noveck, who I have a huge amount of respect for, and who’s been recruited by Osborne), and destroy the very thing they’re trying to save.

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Written by countculture

May 17, 2011 at 2:27 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

Videoing council meetings revisited: the limits of openness in a transparent council

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A couple of months ago, I blogged about the ridiculous situation of a local councillor being hauled up in front of the council’s standards committee for posting a council webcast onto YouTube, and worse, being found against (note: this has since been overturned by the First Tier Tribunal for Local Government Standards, but not without considerable cost for the people of Brighton).

At the time I said we should make the following demand:

Give the public the right to record any council meeting using any device using Flip cams, tape recorders, frankly any darned thing they like as long as it doesn’t disrupt the meeting.

Step forward councillor Liam Maxwell from the Royal Borough of Windsor & Maidenhead, who as the cabinet member for transparency has a personal mission to make RBWM the most transparent council in the country. I don’t see why you couldn’t do that our council, he said.

So, last night, I headed over to Maidenhead for the scheduled council meeting to test this out, and either provide a shining example for other councils, or show that even the most ‘transparent’ council can’t shed the pomposity and self-importance that characterises many council meetings, and allow proper open access.

The video below, less than two minutes long, is the result, and as you can see, they chose the latter course:

Interestingly, when asked why videoing was not allowed, they claimed ‘Data Protection’, the catch-all excuse for any public body that doesn’t want to publish, or open up, something. Of course, this is nonsense in the context of a public meeting,  and where all those being filmed were public figures who were carrying out a civic responsibility.

There’s also an interesting bit to the end when a councillor answered that they were ‘transparent’ in response to the observation that they were supposed to be open. This is the same old you-can-look-but-don’t touch attitude that has characterised much of government’s interactions with the public (and works so well at excluding people from the process). Perhaps naively, I was a little shocked to hear this from this particular council.

So there you have it. That, I guess, is where the boundaries of transparency lies at Windsor & Maidenhead. Why not test them out at your council, and perhaps we can start a new scoreboard at OpenlyLocal to go with the open data scoreboard,  and the 10:10 council scoreboard

Written by countculture

December 8, 2010 at 4:33 pm

Not the way to build a Big Society: part1 NESTA

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I took a very frustrating phone call earlier today from NESTA, an organisation I’ve not had any dealings with it before, and don’t actually have a view about it, or at least didn’t.

It followed from an email I’d received a couple of days earlier, which read:

I am contacting you about a project NESTA  are currently working on in partnership with the Big Society Network called Your Local Budget.

Working with 10 pioneer local authorities, we are looking at how you can use participatory budgeting to develop new ways to give people a say in how mainstream local budgets are spent. Alongside this we will also be developing an online platform that enables members of the public to understand and scrutinise their local authority’s spending, and connect with each other to generate ideas for delivering better value for money in public spending.

We would like to share our thinking and get your thoughts on the online tool to get a sense of what is needed and where we can add value. You are invited to a round table discussion on Friday 19 November, 11am – 12.30pm at NESTA that will be chaired by Philip Colligan, Executive Director of the Public Services Lab. Following the meeting we intend to issue an invitation to tender for the online tool.

Apart from the short notice & terrible timing (it clashes with the Open Government Data Camp, to which you’d hope most of the people involved would be going), the main question I had was this:

Why?

I got the phone call because I couldn’t make the round table, and for some feedback, and this was the feedback I gave: I don’t understand why this is being done. At all.

Putting aside the participatory budgeting part (although this problem seems to be getting dealt with by Redbridge council and YouGov, whose solution is apparently being offered to all councils), there’s the question of the “online platform that enables members of the public to understand and scrutinise their local authority’s spending, and connect with each other to generate ideas for delivering better value for money in public spending.

Excuse me? Most of the data hasn’t been published yet, there are several known organisations and groups (including OpenlyLocal) that have publicly stated they going to to be importing this data and doing things with it – visualising it, and allowing different views and analysis. Additionally, OpenlyLocal is already talking with several newspaper groups to help them re-use the data, and we are constantly evolving how we match and present the data.

Despite this, Nesta seems to have decided that it’s going to spend public money on coming up with a tendered solution to solve a problem that may be solved for zero cost by the private sector. Now I’m no roll-back-the-government red-in-tooth-and-claw free marketeer, but this is crazy, and I said as much to the person from Nesta.

Is the roundtable to decide whether the project should be done, or what should be done? I asked. The latter I was told. So, they’ve got some money and  have decided they’re going to spend it, even though the need may not be there. At a time when welfare payments are being cut, essential services are being slashed, for this sort of thing to happen is frankly outrageous.

There are other concerns here too – I personally think websites such as this are not suitable for a tender process, as that doesn’t encourage or often even allow the sort of agile, feedback-led process that produces the best websites. They also favour those who make their living by tendering.

So, Nesta, here’s a suggestion. Park this idea for 12 months, and in the meantime give the money back to the government. If you want to act as an angel funding then act as such (and the ones I’ve come across don’t do tendering). A reminder, your slogan is ‘making innovation flourish’, but sometimes that means stepping back and seeing what happens. This is not the way to building a Big Society

Written by countculture

November 17, 2010 at 2:27 pm

Opening up council accounts… and open procurement

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Since OpenlyLocal started pulling in council spending data, it’s niggled at me that it’s only half the story. Yes, as more and more data is published you’re beginning to get a much clearer idea of who’s paid what. And if councils publish it at a sufficient level of detail and consistently categorised, we’ll have a pretty good idea of what it’s spent on too.

However, useful though that is, that’s like taking a peak at a company’s bank statement and thinking it tells the whole story. Many of the payments relate to goods or services delivered some time in the past, some for things that have not yet been delivered, and there are all sorts of things (depreciation, movements between accounts, accruals for invoices not yet received) that won’t appear on there.

That’s what the council’s accounts are for — you know, those impenetrable things locked up in PDFs in some dusty corner of the council’s website, all sufficiently different from each other to make comparison difficult:

For some time, the holy grail for projects like OpenlyLocal and Where Does My Money Go has been to get the accounts in a standardized form to make comparison easy not just for accountants but for regular people too.

The thing is, such a thing does exist, and it’s sent by councils to central Government (the Department for Communities and Local Government to be precise) for them to use in their own figures. It’s a fairly hellishly complex spreadsheet called the Revenue Outturn form that must be filled in by the council (to get an idea have a look at the template here).

They’re not published anywhere by the DCLG, but they contain no state secrets or sensitive information; it’s just that the procedure being followed is the same one as they’ve always followed, and so they are not published, even after the statistics have been calculated from the data (the Statistics Act apparently prohibit publication until the stats have been published).

So I had an idea: wouldn’t it be great if we could pull the data that’s sitting in all these spreadsheets into a database and so allow comparison between councils’ accounts, thus freeing it from those forgotten corners of government computers.

This would seem to be a project that would be just about simple enough to be doable (though it’s trickier than it seems) and could allow ordinary people to understand their council’s spending in all sorts of ways (particularly if we add some of those sexy Where Does My Money Go visualisations). It could also be useful in ways that we can barely imagine  – some of the participatory budget experiments going in on in Redbridge and other councils would be even more useful if the context of similar councils spending was added to the mix.

So how would this be funded. Well, the usual route would be for DCLG or perhaps the one of the Local Government Association bodies such as IDeA to scope out a proposal, involving many hours of meetings, reams of paper, and running up thousands of pounds in costs, even before it’s started.

They’d then put the process out to tender, involving many more thousands in admin, and designed to attract those companies who specialise in tendering for public sector work. Each of those would want to ensure they make a profit, and so would work out how they’re going to do it before quoting, running up their own costs, and inflating the final price.

So here’s part two of my plan, instead going down that route, I’d come up with a proposal that would:

  • be a fraction of that cost
  • be specified on a single sheet of paper
  • paid for only if I delivered

Obviously there’s a clear potential conflict of interest here – I sit on the government’s Local Public Data Panel and am pushing strongly for open data, and also stand to benefit (depending on how good I am at getting the information out of those hundreds of spreadsheets, each with multiple worksheets, and matching the classification systems). The solution to that – I think – is to do the whole thing transparently, hence this blog post.

In a sense, what I’m proposing is that I scope out the project, solving those difficult problems of how to do it, with the bonus of instead of delivering a report, I deliver the project.

Is it a good thing to have all this data imported into a database, and shown not just on a website in a way non-accountants can understand, but also available to be combined with other data in mashups and visualisations? Definitely.

Is it a good deal for the taxpayer, and is this open procurement a useful way of doing things? Well you can read the proposal for yourself here, and I’d be really interested in comments both on the proposal and the novel procurement model.

Some progress on the Local Spending/Spikes Cavell issue

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Yesterday I was invited to a meeting at the Department for Communities and Local Government with the key players in the local spending/Spikes Cavell issue that I’ve written about previous (see The open data that isn’t and Update on the local spending data scandal… the empire strikes back).

The meeting included Luke Spikes from Spikes Cavell as well as Andrew Larner from IESE (the Regional Improvement and Efficiency Partnership for the South East), which helped set up the deal, as well as myself and Nigel Shadbolt, who chairs the Local Public Data Panel and sits on the government’s Transparency Board. I won’t go into all the details, but the meeting was cordial and constructive, produced a lot of information about how the deal works and also potentially made progress in terms of solving some of the key issues.

We can now, for example, start to understand the deal – it’s called the Transform project – which as I understand it is a package deal to take raw information from the councils accounts and other systems (e.g. purchase & procurement systems) to SC’s specification, clean up and depersonalise the data, then analyse to show the councils potential savings/improvements, and finally to publish a cut of this information on the Spotlight on Spend website. Essentially we have this:

There are still some details missing from this picture – we haven’t yet seen the Memorandum of Understanding which frames the deal, nor the specification of the raw information that is provided to Spikes Cavell, but we have been promised both of these imminently. This last one in particular will be very useful as it will allow us to refine the advice we are giving councils about the data they should be publishing in order to make the spending information useful and comparable (it’s not been suggested previously, for example, that it would be useful to include details from the council’s procurement systems, though in hindsight this makes a lot of sense).

Crucially, it was also agreed that all the input data into Spikes Cavell’s proprietary systems (the ‘Cleaned-up but non-proprietary data’ in the diagram above) would be published, so the wider community would be on the same footing as Spikes Cavell as far as access to the raw data goes. This is crucial and worth repeating: it means that anyone else will have access to the same base data as Spikes Cavell, and the playing field is therefore pretty much level.

There are still issues to be sorted out, the chief of which is that while Spikes Cavell is happy to publish the raw data under a completely open licence, they will require the OK of the council to do so. (However, armed with this knowledge it will be easy to identify those councils that refuse, and then possible to tackle them either through persuasion or ultimately legislation.)

The other issues are, briefly: liability for depersonalising the data; where the data is published (I think it should be on the council’s own website or a data.gov.uk, or for London councils the London Datastore, not on the Spotlight On Spend website); whether the Spotlight On Spend website itself is necessary and cost-effective (it’s impossible to know how much it costs as it’s bundled in with the whole deal); and whether the data-cleansing should be stripped out from the rest of the deal.

However, it’s worth saying that this agreement goes beyond just the member councils of the IESE, but to all councils that in the future use a similar agreement (obviously it’s ultimately up to them, but certainly this was the wish of everyone at the meeting).

Finally, I’d like to thank Andrew Larner at IESE for his open approach, and for Spikes Cavell for their willingness to engage. What we have here isn’t perfect (and I still fundamentally believe that councils should be doing the cleansing and publishing of the data themselves, and exchanging that knowledge with other councils and using it to improve their own data processes), but it’s a big step forward in genuinely opening up raw council data.

Update: The official notes of the meeting have now been published on the Local Public Data panel blog: http://data.gov.uk/blog/local-public-data-panel-%E2%80%93-sub-group-meeting-spotlight-spend-20-july-2010

Written by countculture

July 20, 2010 at 10:57 pm

Update on the local spending data scandal… the empire strikes back

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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.

Photo: chrisspurgeon on Flickr

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.

Written by countculture

July 4, 2010 at 2:53 pm