Making Open Data Real – Response from ODM and Open Data Cities programme.

27th October 2011

The benefits of adopting open data for the purposes of transparency and accountability have been well documented, but open data is not just about transparency and accountability. We live in a modern technologised society and we need to give people the tools to navigate through our modern data driven environment, whether it be access to transit data, gritting routes or ‘infrastructural’ data such as mapping, hydrology or weather.

We strongly argue for an open by default position with exemption being justified due to security or privacy. This is key as it is virtually impossible to predict what the utility of every dataset will be. It is obvious that certain ‘high value’ (Those that are perceived to improve ‘quality of life’ decisions) datasets will be adopted and used relatively quickly, but some will get used seldomly and many not at all – this doesn’t discount their value, as data has to be seen in the broader context of knowledge and future conditions may make certain datasets more relevant.

It is also important that any body that delivers service on behalf of the public is also required to be open. For example Manchester is straight jacketed by a fragmented public transport system that has 40+ bus operators all supposedly in competition. Crossing the city may take multiple tickets from multiple operators. There is no motivation for operators to release information as to their fare structures although it has long been identified that having a transparent fare structure enables people to budget, plan and use public transport with confidence. At the moment you can only find out a fare by stepping on to the bus or ringing the operator directly. Although some bus operators do see the value of opening up this information, in meetings concern has been raised by certain operators about wholesale release of data allowing other operators to undercut prices – which is the idea of a deregulated system and local councilors being able to see how much they charge – which goes against the idea of delivering public service and being accountable.

There is a case that Land Property Registry data be made available. Speaking to Local Authority colleagues there is an issue regarding the tackling of housing benefit fraud where claimants might have property in another borough and the potential of combating certain money laundering activities – It might also of effectively tackled the abuse of second home allowances by MPs before it became a major issue.

We need to encourage a transition to a more intelligent and aware data policy. This cannot be done in one fell swoop but needs to inform procurement, so when IT systems are upgraded the ability to express data openly from a system would be specified. The adoption of common data release schedules is to be encouraged, especially where you have metropolitan counties such as Greater Manchester. Our colleagues at Trafford MBC, who we were in partnership with, in developing DataGM identified this as an important way to get cross authority collaboration on dataset release.

There is a very important benefit from having common data release schedules. At present it is very difficult for developers and digital businesses to make certain open data based applications beyond proof of concept due to the market for open data applications and services being nascent. Common schedules allow development of products that can quickly find a critical market mass, this in turn validates the demand side argument for data.

The public sector is logically the biggest user of its own data but data that is closed and siloed is often dumb data. We hear countless examples of dumb data policy: where local authority officials can’t find the data that they require – so creating an environment for ad hoc duplication and standards, in Greater Manchester this is estimated to cost many millions of pounds of lost personnel hours, and where local authorities might be operating multiple – up to 30 in some – GIS systems all with their own licensing agreements and interoperability issues.

There has to be an adoption of common standards and these have to be non-proprietary, open and extensible. Although there is certain resistance to the adoption of Linked Data, mostly due to people not fully understanding the concept and need, with the explosion of data enabled devices, the need for computers to interpret complex data environments is becoming more important. Government has to be a major player in this space it also has to be intelligent in how it ensures compliance. Open and extensible formats offer a certain amount of future proofing over proprietary formats

A concern that we hold, especially in light of participating in the EU smart city programme, is that within the UK there doesn’t seem to be much appreciation that open data is an enabler of Smart City and other technologies. Common technological frameworks that allow the development of city-based services across territories are being developed, building larger potential markets for products. What might be unviable in one territory might be viable at scale.
Future technological developments such as the Internet of Things might be hampered if there is pressure to license and charge for certain ‘infrastructure’ datasets. Certain IoT devices have to be aware of where they are and how they are functioning in relation to public infrastructure and data.

We strongly feel that we are coming to a point where we see a transition to Government as a platform. This will enable development of services from both within the public sector and outside. Open Data could be seen as evidence of a healthy functioning platform based structure, where the boundaries and interactions between citizen, government and business are porous, diffuse and bidirectional.

Access to information is key to the re-enfranchisement. Open Data has the potential to create a more equitable environment for participation. Although it would be naive to believe that opening up data will automatically create a data aware citizenry, it only needs a few people who have the skills to mediate information in their communities to raise awareness and participation.

We believe that for Open Data to become sustainable we need to be able to not only encourage the supply side but that of the demand side for data as well. Where market failure occurs or where there is nascent development of a sector, there is a need to stimulate activity to drive awareness, create services and applications and develop a base layer from which further development can be derived. Innovation challenges and focused development days are two of the things that can help drive this. There needs to be support for initiatives such as Open Data Manchester, Open Data Sheffield, Open Data Brighton and now Open Data Hull. Often, as in the case of Open Data Manchester and the Open Data Cities project from which it was derived, there is no resource support from the public sector and this is unsustainable.

Julian Tait
Open Data Manchester/Open Data Cities

Online Response

1. Do the definitions of the terms go far enough or too far

Engaged citizens need to have access to the structure of our cities. This isn’t jut about league tables but one that allows people to move seamlessly through their modern data driven environment

There needs to be an additional category of open data that focusses on the open data that enables people to navigate through the modern data driven environment, whether it be access to transit data, gritting routes or ‘infrastructural’ data such as mapping, hydrology or weather.

2. Where a decision is being taken about whether to make a dataset open, what tests should be applied

Whether the dataset or ‘datastream’ is being produced to enable the delivery of public services or as in the case of transportation data whether the data produced is for the purposes of disseminating information to the public enabling them to access service more efficiently – EG Transport Executive producing RT bus data that will enable people to use mobile devices to access service saving the capital outlay of investing in realtime bus signage.

3. If the costs to publish or release data are not judged to represent value for money, to what extent extent should the requester be required to pay for public services data and under what circumstances

The terms for value for money can be vague and encourage abuse. A test should be whether the data holder is creating the data for the delivery of their own service rather than explicitly for the request.

4. How do we get the right balance in relation to the range of organisations (providers of public services) our policy proposals apply to? What threshold would be appropriate to determine the range of public services in scope and what key criteria should inform this

All services that are delivered on behalf of the public should be covered. If a public service uses the data for the delivery of its own task then it should be made available

5. What would be appropriate mechanisms to encourage or ensure publication of data by public service providers?

We need to encourage a transition to a more intelligent and aware data policy. This can not be done in one fell swoop but needs to inform procurement. So when IT systems are upgraded the ability to express data openly from a system would have to be implemented

1. How should we establish a stronger presumption in favour of publication than that which currently exists?

Emphasis needs to be changed to one where exemption from publication is the exception and sufficient rigorous justification is needed

2. Is providing an independent body, such as the Information Commissioner, with enhanced powers and scope the most effective option for safeguarding a right to access and a right to data?

Enhancing the powers of the Information Commissioner is crucial in this process. It is also the ICO becomes a key motivator to creating an open by default policy. The ICO would then be able to put pressure on public bodies to standardise the way that they create data ideally bringing about a more intelligent public data environment

3. Are existing safeguards to protect personal data and privacy measures adequate to regulate the Open Data agenda?

Protection of personal data and privacy is vitally important and their has to be real teeth regarding organisations both public and private that transgress these rules. There also has to be an understanding that networked technologies will circumvent many safeguards

4. What might the resource implications of an enhanced right to data be for those bodies within its scope?

The enhanced right to data could if implemented wrongly be very resource heavy. If the starting position of public bodies are the biggest users of their own data and the present systems in place for shared intelligence and services is fundamentally flawed and there needs to be change. Example one local authority uses 30 separate GIS systems with each departmental head believing that theirs is the best. If you get it right for the public sectors own use the rest is easy.

5. How will we ensure that Open Data standards are embedded in new ICT contracts

Open data and open platforms need to be embedded into the procurement process. We need to break the straightjacket of public services being sold into proprietary IT contracts where the public body isn’t able to use their own data beyond the purposes originally specified. There also has to be a more intelligent procurement process where seemingly value for money initial cost is impacted by costly process of upgrading

1. What is the best way to achieve compliance on high and common standards to allow usability and interoperability?

There are a number of standards that are open, extensible and interoperable.

2. Is there a role for government to establish consistent standards for collecting user experience across public service

Government is the only authority that can establish compliance amongst public bodies.

3. Should we consider a scheme for accreditation of information intermediaries, and if so how best that might work

No. As long as there is equal access to data for all the market should be able to create the right mechanism.

1. How would we ensure that public service providers in their day to day decision-making honour a commitment to Open Data, while respecting privacy and security considerations.

There needs to be an establishment of a robust data release framework where sensitive data would be identified at an early stage. There also needs to be an honest position with regard to this where data collectors don’t combine data so that it can then be covered by the DPA or their might be

2. What could personal responsibility at Board-level do to ensure the right to data is being met include? Should the same person be responsible for ensuring that personal data is properly protected and that privacy issues are met?

Corporate responsibility a board level

3. Would we need to have a sanctions framework to enforce a right to data?

Yes, change cant happen without sanction

4. What other sectors would benefit from having a dedicated Sector Transparency Board

We think that the duplication of task is unnecessary when you have a common and clear sets of standards

1. How should public service make use of data inventories? What is the optimal way to develop and operate this?

Data inventories should that serve the purposes of both internal purposes and external purposes

2. How should data be prioritised for inclusion in an inventory? How is value to be established

Ideally there should be identification of a common set of ‘high value’ datasets that will help to embed the validity of open data these will also help to create a first wave of interpretations and applications. An implementation of a common data release plan would then be undertaken.

3. In what areas would you expect government to collect and publish data routinely?

All areas

4. What data is collected ‘unnecessarily’? How should these datasets be identified? Should collection be stopped?

There is a great deal of duplication of data within the public sector and this needs to be minimised. Careful consideration should be given as to what unnecessarily actually means. If it means that the data isn’t being used.

5. Should the data that government releases always be of high quality? How do we define quality? To what extent should public service providers ‘polish’ the data they publish, if at all?

You would expect that data that is collected on the public’s behalf for the delivery of public service should be of high quality and if it isn’t there is something that is wrong with the system. Although it might be necessary to anonymise or redact certain data this should only be undertaken in tightly defined cases.

1. How should government approach the release of existing data for policy and research purposes: should this be held in a central portal or held on departmental portals?

Ideally all the data should be held on the same portal so that there is no need to search for it

2. What factors should inform prioritisation of datasets for publication, at national, local or sector level?

High value quality of life datasets. Should always be identified. The quick wins

3. Which is more important: for government to prioritise publishing a broader set of data, or existing data at a more detailed level.

Data should be released at the source resolution. Additional work to create different resolutions of data should be discouraged

1. Is there a role for government to stimulate innovation in the use of Open Data? If so, what is the best way to achieve this?

Definitely. For Open Data to become sustainable we need to be able to not only encourage the supply side but that of the demand side as well. Where market failure occurs or where there is nascent development of a sector then there is a need to stimulate activity to drive awareness, create services and applications and develop a base layer from which further development niacin be derived.

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