Open data is not a panacea – but it is a start

Businessman pressing a Data concept button.

Today the UK Government officially launches its effort to open up UK data. This is a project that I am proud to have even a small part in developing. In certain circles there is a real fervour around the release of data, this being the essential ingredient missing to give citizens the power to manage their own destiny.


If what I’ve been hearing is right, it sometimes seems there is a real belief that Citizens – not Government – will be developing ‘Services’ based on the data that is released. Who are these Citizens?

For years I have made the argument for the guy on the street. Let’s call him (as I so often do) Joe Bloggs. He works hard, spends time with his family and mates. In fact he represents a significantly large portion of the population. Is the supposition that he is going to suddenly take an interest in the release of Government data, teach himself how to code and do SPARQL queries, and develop his own ‘Services’?

Not likely.

So if not him – then who? Those who campaign for the release of Government data seem to fall into a few major camps:

  • Those who want more access to information because it will inform their work – e.g. the press via MP Expenses
  • Rights activists who once the data is free will move onto another cause – because that’s what they do
  • Those individuals who encircle Government who continually talk about how they could produce far better ‘Services’ than Government, at a fraction of the cost and time

Better access to data for those who monitor Government and then report on its activities will have certain benefits. We can all agree that some portion of the expenses scandal was beneficial and could lead to positive change in Government spending policy. We should also acknowledge the reality – that probably 80+ percent of the scandal was merely spectacle to earn revenue for news organisations.

I will admit that the efforts of rights activists will help groups 1 and 3 above by fighting a meticulous battle to gain access to what many term as Public data in any case.

But what about those ‘Services’?

To understand the drive behind this, we need to understand that with the Government in a precarious position due to over-extension of resources during the Recession, anything that could lead to a reduction of costs will look attractive. Take, for example, the appointment of a Digital Inclusion Champion to get the remainder of the UK population online.

Why would the Government do this?

Because long-term, the consumption of digital services, that can accommodate millions in the way a physical location cannot, will result in cost savings through the reduction of said facilities and staff to run them. So who, in reality, will create those digital services? It will be same internal teams, companies and consultancies who currently work for Government.

In practical terms, they are the only ones who have the infrastructure and capital to go through ISO accreditation, PRINCE training, supply account and project directors, planners, technical architects, UCD experts, designers, developers, testers and hosting.

I am not saying there won’t be any applications of importance or use developed. But to make them robust in a way that they will need to be to accommodate the complete shift to online, they will require more thinking and better development than they currently undergo.

At this point in my diatribe, people often talk about applications like FixMyStreet from My Society. Don’t get me wrong. I love the work that My Society do, and I love FixMyStreet. I think it’s a fantastic crowd-sourcing app with a specific focus – I believe there should be more of these apps developed. But to integrate it with the ~434 Local Authorities, find the correct staff to deal with the issues, and ensure that it’s not simply a one-way communication or Broadcast tool, there needs to be a level of development, architecture and cost expended that would promote this app into the realm of the very Government services that developers often rally against.

I have been waiting for a single significant ‘Service’ to be developed over the last year, either in the US with its earlier release of data, or here in the UK with the slow drip-feed release of data into the developer community. I have been waiting for someone to explain what benefit to the greater Public will quantifiably occur with an open data policy.

In truth, I’ve been waiting for Joe Bloggs on the street to mention in passing – “Hey, just yesterday I did ‘x’ online” and have it be one of those new ‘Services’ that has been developed from the release of our data. (Note: A Joe Bloggs who is not related to Government or those who encircle Government. A real true independent Citizen.)

It may be a long wait.

The reality is that releasing the data is a small step in a long walk that will take many years to see any significant value. Sure there will be quick wins along the way – picking on MP’s expenses is easy. But to build something sustainable, some series of things that serve millions of people directly, will not happen overnight. And the reality, as Tom Loosemore pointed out at the London Data Store launch, it won’t be a sole developer who ultimately brings it to fruition.

Regardless, I’m looking forward to today’s official launch, not because it is a panacea to all of Government’s problems around developing digital services – because clearly it is not. I’m looking forward to it because I believe it is a necessary step to getting to whatever is next in all of this. The prolonged argument for releasing data has only left us in a grey space, waiting, anticipating and hoping.

With its release, I believe in short order the idea that the release itself will solve our problems will pass, and the real work of understanding the possibilities, engaging with Citizens to understand what problems they needs solving, and then wading into the sea of data to try to find some answers, will begin.

So today is a good step forward.

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