As I indicated yesterday, I have serious doubts about the UK government's policy on copyright. But while that has been something of a disappointment to me – I naively hoped for better – its work on open data, by contrast, has exceeded my expectations.
It has already made a number of important moves in this area, and with a major new consultation – bearing the rather splendid title "Making Open Data Real" - it looks like it intends to move further toward openness in this area. Not only that, but is actually asking for our views on many aspects. This is quite unlike its approach for copyright enforcement, where it is trying to push through all kinds of stupidities and hope that no one notices, so I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies.
The executive summary provides a good introduction to the thinking here:
Much has already been achieved in opening up the public sector, as demonstrated in the two open letters from the Prime Minister on transparency. These covered the opening of finance data, health data, information about public servants, rail timetables, and school performance. This document will set out proposals for embedding a culture of openness and transparency in public services. It sets out how we might create the ‘pull' (a right to data) and the ‘push' (a presumption of publication) that will underpin the further development of Open Government in the UK. This consultation invites views on:
How we might enhance a ‘right to data', establishing stronger rights for individuals, businesses and other actors to obtain data from public bodies and about public services;
How to set transparency standards that enforce this right to data;
How public bodies and providers of public services might be held to account for delivering Open Data;
How we might ensure collection and publication of the most useful data;
How we might make the internal workings of government and the public sector more open;
How far there is a role for government to stimulate enterprise and market making in the use of Open Data.
The general savviness of the consulation is evident from the fact that it even welcomes comments on terminology – always a hot topic, as the free software/open source world knows only too well:
Alongside these proposals, this document sets out a proposed glossary of terms which establishes the scope and limits of terms like ‘Open Data' and the range of ‘Public Services'. These terms are also open for consultation.
It also makes the following sensible comment, which I think is spot on:
In this document, ‘Transparency' and ‘Open Data' are at times used interchangeably. Broadly speaking, we consider Transparency to be the goal and Open Data to be the tool.
One thing that is very striking about the document is how gung-ho it is about openness and transparency. This is from the "Vision" section:
Information is power and by sharing it, we can deliver modern, personalised and sustainable public services. Transparency of data in the UK has already transformed our interaction with the private sector, particularly via the internet. From financial services and online banking, to travel booking and retailing, access to data has become a means to change the relationship we have with service providers and retailers: we have access to our personal data, we compare providers, we exercise choice and we share our feedback. Online banking was first launched thirteen years ago and now has more than 22m users in the UK. This is the kind of meaningful Information Revolution that we now seek in our public services.
Open Data may be the most powerful lever of 21st century public policy: it can make accountability real for citizens; it can improve outcomes and productivity in key services through informed comparison; it can transform social relationships – empowering individuals and communities; and it can drive dynamic economic growth.
The same section explains the purpose of the current consultation:
there is still far more to be done – at present the reality for citizens is that getting access to meaningful data about their public services can still be difficult and is sometimes impossible. Equally for enterprise, particularly start-ups and SMEs, getting access to data that helps grow their business may be difficult or close to impossible. The quality of data that is currently published is often poor, and publication may be intermittent, which is unhelpful for business in particular. Standards do not exist across departments or wider public bodies, so it is difficult to make comparisons. Data may be published without clear explanations of context, meaning that in reality it is difficult to use. Fundamentally, the right to continued access to a dataset, once released, does not exist. The culture within the public sector and with public service providers is not currently focused on making data available.
This document sets out a number of levers that the Government is considering using to make Open Data and Transparency the operating principle of public services, including the creation of an enhanced right to data, giving individuals and organisations the right to access, interpret and utilise data in an enhanced form for bodies already subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) or Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) legislation, and a new right to data for a wider range of public service providers extending to cover providers who have been funded, commissioned or established by statute to provide a service.
As you can see, this is really important stuff, both for businesses and individuals. Since the consultation document isn't too long (less than 60 pages), and is well written, I urge you to read it if you can. It's available both online, and as a downloadable pdf.
You can also answer the questions online, or via email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The deadline for replies is 27 October 2011. As usual, I'll be giving my response in a later post on this blog.