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Adam Afriyie: Government must improve access to data

“The campaign to ‘free our data’ is an important one – all the more so at a time when our economy is in deep recession.

And it sits at the heart of the Conservative vision to empower citizens in what David Cameron has described as the post-bureaucratic age.

In the years ahead, our challenge will be to build a stronger society with a more balanced economy: an economy that’s free and able to compete in a fast-changing world; where those nations that innovate and make best use of their data resources will prosper and excel.

That means building an economy which reaches beyond housing, borrowing and financial services, and takes full advantage of the new opportunities technology offers.

So my vision is for a more open, innovative and better connected society: a society where access to communication technology creates more powerful citizens and a less controlling state; a society where the free-flow of public information energizes entrepreneurs and social innovators. 

Data will be the fuel of this new economy. And as the repository of the country’s public data, the Government already has a vital presence in the field.

The pace of technological change is breathtaking, but the pace of governmental change is not. And this means that policies which seemed reasonable just ten years ago are now old fashioned, out of step and, potentially, counter-productive for the economy.

In today’s economic climate, when the talk is of recovery, we must ensure that government data policies help rather than hinder economic growth.

That’s why, today, I want to explore the two strands of public sector information which need to be addressed.

DUSTY GOVERNMENT VAULTS

First, I turn to non-trading fund data.  This is the deep well of raw data which lies unpublished, unavailable and untapped in dusty government vaults.

This includes raw data for crime maps and school league tables. It could include hospital performance statistics and patterns of carbon emissions. It might include the coordinates of every mobile phone mast, held by Ofcom, or the location of accident black spots, held by the Department for Transport.

There is any number of data sets below the radar, and I’m sure members of the audience will have their own ideas. 

Much of it can be mashed-up and re-used, adding value for the economy and society.

The problem here is that even if some of this material can be obtained through Freedom of Information requests, it cannot be published or re-used.

Freedom of Information currently underpins transparency.  But it does not drive economic activity because it does not carry the right of re-use.

Commercial re-use is what distinguishes this issue from mere access to information.

TRADING FUNDS

Second, I turn to trading fund data. This is information which government agencies sell to generate income. The Ordnance Survey, the Met Office, the Hydrographic Office and the Land Registry are good examples.

Now let me be clear: we see nothing intrinsically wrong with asking users to pay for a service. Nor do we oppose attempts to replicate efficient, business forces within the public sector.

But we are instinctively cautious of government monopolies. And that puts us in a position to ask whether there could be a better way to generate more jobs, more wealth and more enterprise for the nation by doing things differently.

Take Ordnance Survey as an example. While there is a case for the government having responsibility for mapping the nation’s territory, with growing opportunities in the digital economy it’s not so obvious that the government should also run map shops.

Conservatives do not usually take the view that retail businesses are best run by governments.

There is now a growing literature arguing for more open access to public data. But the Government’s response, in our opinion, has been little and late.

Sure, there is some recognition of the potential for greater release.  Last week’s Power of Information Taskforce report was the latest example.

But so far there have been at least five government reports. And some – like the long delayed Trading Fund Assessment – have been announced with great fanfare only to fade with a whimper.

Indeed we are now told, bizarrely, that the Trading Fund Assessment will not be published and will be treated as private advice to Ministers. There’s open government for you!

But we do welcome to the Trading Fund Assessment.  The situation should certainly be scrutinised. But the review should not be an excuse for kicking the issue into the long grass.

So I’m calling on the Government to publish the review, and let us have the debate.

And let’s be clear: it should not be an excuse for half-hearted measures.

A leaked report in last month’s Technology Guardian suggested that some Ordnance Survey data could be released for charity re-use alone.

If this is the plan to be announced in the Budget, it hardly scratches the surface of the issue.

The leaked plans would challenge and possibly destabilise the existing trading fund model. But by excluding businesses from the equation, the Government would fail to stimulate the wider economic benefits anticipated by so many studies, including their own.

They would represent little more than a political sop to buy off campaigners. Like many half-way houses, it could be the worst of both worlds.

Others have suggested alternative models.

For example: although it could strip trading funds of their revenue, it has been suggested that some trading funds might be divested of their data refining activities, leaving them only with the collection of raw data.

Another option could be an economic and fiscal experiment: freeing ‘slivers’ of trade fund data to determine the benefits of moving to open access.

These are all issues which a meaningful review of the trading funds should address.

Beyond trading fund data, we also have to look at the policies and procedures in government which restrict further re-use of public sector information.

Under this Government, new advisory bodies have been created, but there is no independent regulation of data activities.

There are no powers to compel the release of potentially valuable data sets from within Whitehall.

In effect, Government is acting as poacher and gamekeeper - hoarding and hiding data, restricting the re-use of data through state control.

Government reports from the Office of Fair Trading and the Power of Information Task Force have highlighted the lack of independent regulation as a real weakness in the current arrangements.

From the Advisory Panel on Public Sector Information to the Office of the Information Commissioner, there are existing arm’s length bodies that hint at a possible future architecture for PSI regulation.

Indeed, with the Freedom of Information Act the responsibilities of the Information Commissioner have already evolved from one of protecting private data to encouraging the release of public information.

In this context, one could easily imagine that powers to enforce rights to re-use data could be vested in a similar body – or indeed with the Information Commissioner.

ENCOURAGING BEST PRACTICE IN GOVERNMENT

But we’ve also got to look beyond central government.  Much of the information that affects our daily lives is held by local authorities.

Last year David Cameron set out the need for standard data formats for information provision.

It must also be good to see a move towards local authorities adopting best practice on the re-use of data.

That could include devising an accreditation badge, such as the ‘Information Fair Trader Scheme’, which already exists for central government departments.

Finally, we must ensure that any individual can easily apply for access and re-use.

At present, the Office of Public Sector Information is piloting an online ‘Unlocking Service’.

It allows people to submit ideas for the re-use of government data.

It’s a clever idea, but its weaknesses are glaringly obvious. Applicants cannot be sure when they will receive a response. In fact, applicants don’t know if they will ever receive a response. Now what kind of service is this?

And the regulator, the Office of Public Sector Information, has no real powers to challenge a department if it refuses open access. We have to look again at its powers if it’s to make a real difference.

Because, potentially, an online unlocking service with legal standing could strengthen the ability of citizens to obtain data for re-use.

In conclusion, there is no doubt in my mind that knowledge is power – social, economic and democratic.

What we need to do now is look at the case for a stronger regulatory framework, an Unlocking Service with teeth, and an independent voice for open access that can hold government to account.

This would amount to a realignment of the information imbalance between government and governed: tackling head on the information asymmetry between state and citizen and freeing the digital economy of the future.”

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