Open data: re-engaging

Fans of UK government open data were getting worried that the Cabinet Office’s enthusiasm for transparency was waning. (I wrote this a month ago.) Events of the last week suggest that all is not lost. It is quite plausible that the long period of silence from officialdom was caused by the spending review and other internal stuff, and nothing more sinister. It appears that key players have indeed been hard at work in government. Fingers crossed. As the government has acknowledged, on “openness” of all topics, there is a need for it to communicate with those outside.  

Paul Maltby explained the background to one event in his blog Re-engaging with our external data users: “On Tuesday night some of us from across government departments involved in the Government Data Programme caught up with a group of external data users over a few mince pies. As always it was good to hang out with a group so passionate about data and its uses, but it was also a relief to start to re-engage in a more systematic way following the Spending Review and other recent organisational changes.”

There was an intro from Matt Hancock MP, Cabinet Office minster responsible for the agenda, with follow up talks from Paul Maltby (newish Cabinet Office director of data), John Pullinger (National Statistician and also Chair of the new Data Steering Group) and Ellen Broad (ODI and Defra).

Hancock made much of the extent/size of the digital agenda, that there’s four years to do it and the “very serious budget” (£450m for GDS) that has been found for it in the spending round. (Sir Jeremy Heywood describes it as a “key priority“.) He was “sure we can improve public services through the profound use of public data”. He saw registers as the key element of the next step on the open data journey. If that translates into a fully fledged National Information Infrastructure (NII), that would be great.

He said he was “interested in driving up quality (of open data)” and called it “unfinished business”. In the question session he said: “If you know of data sets that we have that we do not have open or that we have open in a low grade format I want to know about it – part of my job is to go around Whitehall and make it happen”. Hancock said he wanted to “keep working with this group – that ultimately we can hear your concerns and react appropriately”. The invitation sounded real.

It was clear, as Maltby put it, that “there is no shortage of existing activity right across Whitehall: from data science, registers, open data and preparations for possible data access legislation.” His slides are here. His speech was reported here. It was reassuring to see John Pullinger on the stage too as it is his job to get new and better statistics for all to use.

On Thursday, Matt Hancock reiterated some guiding principles on open data in a speech given in Berlin. It re-emphasised the main themes but also taught us that ‘hundefutter’ is German for ‘dogfooding‘! This memorable if not pleasant phrase in English comes from a US Chief Executive of a dog food company who supposedly ate a can of his own product at a shareholder meeting to prove its quality. More importantly, it makes the point that open data will only become really high quality data if government use it and knows what it feels like.

The words are getting better but there remains a concern about collaboration. Hancock says: “In the UK we’ve worked closely with the Open Data Institute ….. They play a dual role: holding us to account for delivering our open data programme, and connecting us to the leading businesses and innovators progressing this field.” The ODI does many great things but it cannot be the sole or even the dominant means of communication between the government and the outside world. As Maltby says: “This data agenda gets energy and utility from the interplay between government and external users, and it’s quite unlike anything else I’ve seen personally in public service reform over the years.”

The final piece of evidence is the transcript of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee session on big data held on 1 December. The witnesses – Hetan Shah (Royal Statistical Society), Paul Maltby, and Gavin Starks, CEO of Open Data Institute – delivered a “fascinating and optimistic” session according to the chair.

Happy New Year?

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