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John Spencer

Dr John Spencer began his teaching career in 1981 armed with a Sinclair ZX81, thereby demonstrating two things at once: Firstly he was in at the very start of ICT in the classroom and secondly he is a sucker for duff technology. Thereafter he taught joining a start-up open source company as their Head of Education in 2002. Now John is bringing his iconoclastic disposition and tendency to throw a spanner in the works to blogging.

Capita ONE is watching you

George Orwell should have written, 'If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,' in his book 1984, but he did write 'If you kept the small rules, you could break the big ones,' which I think is even better

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Not so very long ago, the previous Government set out to build a giant children’s database which would contain all sorts of information based around the issuing of a Unique Pupil ID that would follow them for life. 

This data would be shared with social services, the NHS and the police. At the eleventh hour it was cancelled by a new Government, mostly on the grounds that it was a step too far, in a ‘Big Brother’ sense... how we cheered. 

This weekend, concurrent with the general alarm about the abuse of children, the Sunday Times ran a story that sounded a little familiar.

 It concerned the gathering of children’s data including scholastic performance, exclusions from school and even photos into a giant ‘secret’ database. Parts of the article sounded maybe more lurid than it was, including references to ‘secret’ software called API (!), but the substance of the report is interesting.

Going back to my opening paragraph, all indeed was cancelled, but in fact Pupil ID did happen and every child has one for life. If this is news to you, then so will be the following:

A lot of schools, most schools even, use a proprietary database called SIMs to store their pupil information. SIMs is a venerable collection of programs that together are called a MIS or Management Information System. It sheer age, its Windows platform and the fact that it was picked up by Local Authorities and distributed to schools (I first used it 22 years ago), helped SIMs become the Number One MIS.

Capita, that most Government-friendly outsourced provider of services, wisely bought SIMs and its dominance increased. 

When I was working hard to provide Open Source solutions to schools I often came upon the challenge, “Is it compatible with SIMS?”  So often did this happen that even today, if someone says to me, “Is it compatible?” or “Will it integrate?” about anything I get the urge to punch them.

Capita-SIMs were wise to this issue and they were very grateful for the proprietary software they owned. If you wanted to be “compatible” with SIMs you could buy their APIs... how lucky were we? Could these APIs be the secret ones in the article?

Anyway, it turns out that Capita have now made a database to unify all the databases that exist in Local Authorities, moreover it is alleged by the Sunday Times that they have software (presumably still for sale) called ‘API’ that would allow the Social Services, the NHS or the police to access it. 

Gosh, that does sound familiar. Capita have named this database “ONE”. Brilliantly sinister and embarrassingly New Labour, don’t you agree? Or maybe the Big Society needs a big ONE database.

Assuming all of this is true, and it was repeated by The Mail and the Sunday Telegraph so it must be true (at least it wasn’t on Newsnight), there are some lessons to be learnt.

First, don’t forget that if you allow commercial organisations using proprietary software to collect data on you or your children, they may find ways of (legally) profiting from it by making it available to others.

Secondly, if you collect data on children, make sure you retain control of it. It’s their data, not yours or anybody else’s.

Thirdly, there are alternatives to Capita-Sims MIS software, like the open source School-Tools, for example.

You may like to reflect on all this, but go carefully.

Don’t forget that they know where you live and what your children look like. George Orwell should have written, “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” in his book 1984 but he did write “If you kept the small rules, you could break the big ones,” which I think is even better.






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