Last Friday, I went along to what I thought would be a pretty routine press conference about open data – just the latest in a continuing drip-feed of announcements in this area from the UK government. I was soon disabused.
One hint was the fact that I ended up sitting one chair away from Sir Tim Berners-Lee – and that the intervening chair was occupied by Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General; another clue was provided by the short but personalised video that David Cameron knocked up for the occasion.
So, this was actually quite a big event, as the accompanying press release made clear:
Minister for Cabinet Office, Francis Maude, will today release detailed Government spending data, allowing the public to see for the first time how Government spends its money and hold politicians to account.
Today, as part of our ongoing drive to make government more accountable, efficient and transparent than ever before, all departments will publish details of their spending over £25,000 for the last six months. On data.gov.uk we have also created a portal for transparency, giving the public and developers easy access to data from all levels of government.
Maude's speech was unashamedly and entertainingly partisan, taking a few jabs at the previous government, but it also made an important point, which was echoed in the press release:
I want the public hold us to account for what we do and, by publishing this data today, taxpayers will be able to see exactly how we spend their money. This will not always be easy but we expect the public to hold our feet to the fire and make sure that not a penny of their money is wasted.
Releasing government data – especially when it relates directly to dosh in this way – is indeed a brave move. There are bound to be things in there that the government would rather keep under wraps (interestingly, I gather that some items have already been disappeared compared to a version that was released to some beforehand.) So kudos to the powers that be for taking this step.
But part of the price we pay for moving from the old "need to know" approach to the "right to data" approach – a slogan which was cited in the PM's video – is that the onus is on the open data crowd and its fans (like me) to demonstrate just why it's a good thing. Cameron rightly says in his speech:
You are going to have so much information about what we do, how much of your money we spend doing it, and what the outcome is. So use it, exploit it, hold us to account. Together, we can set a great example of what a modern democracy ought to look like.
We need to see some real-life uses of that data, but not necessarily just from the usual open data hackers. As a good blog post on the subject put it yesterday:
We don't need heroic coders: swinging in on a trapeze tapping out a regular expression as they fly past on the way to another project. The concern about "what happens when the geeks move on" should be invalid. Do we care about open data because it's current and sexy? Or do we care because it's a tool with which we can make the world better?
As time goes on, and even more government data is released, this will become an important issue – and one that must be addressed satisfactorily if we want to keep that data, and obtain yet more of it.
One particular kind of data, which will be released from January next year, could have important implications for open source: information about government contracts worth over £25 thousand pounds.
As I've noted many a time, the record of open source usage by the UK government has been and still is utterly dismal. Part of the problem is that few people are aware of how a few big companies have the vast majority of government IT deals all sewn up: the new data next year should expose that unhealthy concentration, and maybe even make a few government managers rightly uncomfortable with it.
But in contrast to this new-found and welcome enthusiasm of the UK government for open data, I'm hearing precious little from it on the subject of open source. This is in worrying contrast to its pre-election statements, which firmly nailed its colours to the open souce mast. And there are other worrying signs that things have changed.
Just under a year ago, I wrote about a leaked copy of the (Labour) government's IT strategy that turned up on a Conservative Web site called "Make IT Better", which commented thus on that document:
We think there's a better way. Not only is it possible to develop a more ambitious, cost-effective and transformative vision for government IT, but we believe that it's also possible to pursue a completely different approach to making policy.
Rather than the traditional closed approach to policy making that this report typifies, we want to throw open the process and allow people to contribute their ideas on how policy should be designed. In the post-bureaucratic age, we believe that crowdsourcing and collaborative design can help us to make better policies – and we think this approach should begin now.
This website allows you to post your comments and suggestions on this leaked Government report. We want to hear your ideas – and we will be responding to your thoughts in the weeks ahead. Many thanks for taking part.
That sounds all well and good, except for one detail: the site no longer exists. Now the argument may be that it has served its purpose, and is no longer needed, but that's no reason to vaporise it completely. It feels dangerously close to wanting to re-write history a little – as if, having gained power, the Conservatives now want nothing to do with all those trendy crowdsourced ideas. As I wrote about that site while it still existed:
This is what we in the trade call "giving a hostage to fortune". By so publicly aligning itself with "crowdsourcing" and "collaborative design" in opposition, the Conservatives have given us a handy stick with which to beat them if they come to power and fail to deliver on this " better way".
Well, even without that site to point to, I think the time has come to ask for that "better way" that was promised, particularly with regard to open source, which seems to have been eclipsed rather by the newly-ascendant open data.