Public Data Corporation: How Open, and How Public?

I've been following the move to open data by the UK government for some time on this blog. Major milestones include the creation of the data.gov.uk portal and the recent announcement back in November that “all departments will publish...

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I've been following the move to open data by the UK government for some time on this blog. Major milestones include the creation of the data.gov.uk portal and the recent announcement back in November that "all departments will publish details of their spending over £25,000 for the last six months." Now we have this:

Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude and Business Minister Edward Davey have outlined plans for a new Public Data Corporation.

The Corporation will, for the first time, bring together Government bodies and data into one organisation and provide an unprecedented level of easily accessible public information and drive further efficiency in the delivery of public services.

I rather like the name, which suggests it has aspirations to being the British Broadcasting Corporation for the digital world. It's also good to see the open data efforts within the government being consolidated in this way: a fragmented approach might well have fizzled out in a series of incoherent projects.

So the idea is promising, but what will it mean in practice? Here are some of the things that the government hopes this new corporation will achieve:

a more consistent approach towards access to and accessibility of public sector information;

make more data free at the point of use, where this is appropriate and consistent with ensuring value for taxpayers' money. This would create more opportunities for citizens, social enterprises and businesses to use public sector data in new and innovative ways;

create a centre of excellence for collecting, holding and managing public data, driving further efficiencies and improving productivity across the public sector;

identifying how data Government already holds can be used more effectively to provide better and cheaper public services; and

create more certainty and predictability – encouraging businesses to invest in and develop new and innovative products and applications based on data. It will also provide opportunities for private investment

As you can see, there's a bit of a sting in the tail. Does this mean that some data sets won't be freely available, but will require payment? There's also the dreaded "value for taxpayers' money", which often translates into wringing a few pennies out of something the government has control over. Are we seeing the re-invention of the Ordnance Survey approach all over again?

It's not possible to tell at this stage, but this is certainly a wake-up call. If the government tries to backslide on its much-bruited conversion to the joys of open data, we need to start complaining loudly. Ideally, there would be broad consultations about what the Public Data Corporation should be and do, but at the moment this is all the government is saying in terms of implementation:

The Government aims to establish the Public Data Corporation in 2011. Further work is being undertaken across Government to determine what the Public Data Corporation might look like, including which bodies and datasets should be included within it.

Judging by the phrasing of that, it seems that the government hasn't yet learned that open data is not an end itself, or something that can be bolted on to traditional government. It is actually part of a wider move towards a more transparent, collaborative form of democracy – and that implies seeking input from anyone interested before making major decisions. That's particularly important for a body that calls itself the Public Data Corporation: we need to know just how open, and just how public it will really be.

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