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Data dot (dot, dot): the story of open government data

The TAAI Open Data Study

Don't judge a book by its cover: the open data study

When, earlier this year, the Ordnance Survey announced it would open up (most of) its mapping data for remix and reuse, my first thought was to check the calendar. Sure enough, as with EMI’s announcement in 2007 that it would drop DRM, it was 1 April. But – also as with the EMI announcement – this was no April Fool. After years of campaigning by a grassroots of the digitally-savvy and dedicated, a major organisation had agreed to change its business practice. This was for real.

William Heath and I had already agreed over a rather delicious lunch at the October Gallery that someone needed to tell the story of how open data had proved – as a campaign issue at least – such a success. I’ve been following the rise of mySociety since I interviewed mySociety’s Tom Steinberg about what all this “civic hacking” was about in 2004, the year TheyWorkForYou launched (with, ahem, “borrowed” data). Obama’s “data.gov” portal of reusable federal data was released in 2009, and data.gov.uk, the UK’s own (superior) open data portal, was publicly released this year. I’d be hard pressed to think of an idea that has permeated as quickly as open data has from the fringe to the centre. What did the open data people do so right?

Tim Berners Lee gets the audience chanting at TED 2009

I was delighted when the Transparency and Accountability Initiative (a consortium of funders and NGOs, including DfID, the Omidyar Network, Hewlett, Ford and OSI) approached me in April to answer just that question. Their motivation was to find out what the strategy was, and whether it could be repeated in middle income and developing countries. The result is this report, nattily titled Open Data Study (yes, the title sucks, all the ingenuity went into the text itself). I really enjoyed writing it (especially getting to interview Tim Berners-Lee over video phone) and I hope you’ll enjoy reading it.

Not all of it is easy reading. Digging into the subject meant confronting quite a few of my own misconceptions of the open data story. Here are just a few of the points that surprised me:

  • This is not a story of the plucky grassroots winning out over all. “It has to start at the top, it has to start in the middle and it has to start at the bottom”, as Sir Tim puts it. Without a sleeper cell of dedicated and skilled civil servants who could see what open data was about and how it could help them, this project would never have gotten off the ground. And without a good political reason to open up government data, the project would never have soared to the heights it did.
  • You can’t just fly Sir Tim around Africa and expect him to leave a trail of glistening open data portals in his wake. There are capacity issues. Not everything is computerised. Sometimes, data sets we would regard as core don’t even exist on paper, let alone online. And pockets of corruption are sometimes so intense that releasing data openly could be a life or death thing. There’s good news too – multilateral and bilateral donors could play a strong role in getting data open, and they can start by leading by example.
  • The open data project was sold on its potential and not on its proven impact. I write “More often, it was the utility of applications (in contrast to the resources expended to produce them) and not their broad user bases, which seem to have inspired officials further up the line to engage with the open data agenda.” Of course, this is neither good nor bad: lots of things are sold on their potential, including the ID cards scheme (on second thoughts, maybe that was sold on fear), the NHS data spine…and probably some good things too.

As well as Sir Tim, the report contains interviews with the lovely Ory Okollah of Ushahidi, Jonathan Gray of the OKF, Tom Steinberg, Ethan Zuckerman, and many, many more. It’s already attracted comment from Glyn Moody, and Ory’s done a very kind write-up.

I hope you enjoy it, and do leave your thoughts in the comments.

This seems apt today:

TMobile - Life's for sharing

Read all about it.

Tory health plans – some thoughts

The hoo-ha surrounding this week’s announcement of Tory plans for the NHS IT project begins to look rather misplaced once you actually read their report. The media’s over-emphasis on the role Google or Microsoft might play in future provision of the electronic patient record shows that we persist in understanding state service provision using the defunct paradigm of public versus private. It is only if we adopt a new paradigm – that of centralised versus decentralised information management and service organisation – that we will be equipped to critique the Tories’ plans in any detail.

The nearly 200-page report that spurred the headlines was commissioned by shadow health secretary Stephen O’Brien, and overseen by the former British Computer Society Health Informatics forum chair, Dr Glyn Hayes. Its references to the participation of Google, Microsoft and other commercial information service providers take place in a short, two page section. The mention is designed to illustrate the potential of a much larger reform – that of decentralising the provision of the electronic patient record and other information services – to lead to the twin goods of cost reduction and patient-centred care. It does not wed the British citizenry to relinquishing its medical secrets to Silicon Valley. Quite the opposite – it has the potential to give power over sensitive medical data back to the people who have traditionally been that data’s custodians – practitioners and patients.

The report calls for a balance between centralised standard setting and grassroots commissioning of IT services. If it works well, this approach would result in technology, commissioned by the people who are actually going to use it, that nonetheless allows systems across the NHS to communicate with one another. This at once avoids the disruption caused by the current one-size-fits-all policy of the NHS PfIT, where the needs of frontline practitioners collide with new systems they didn’t ask for and had no say in building, while also preventing the information silos of early digitisation projects within the NHS.

Rather than work with two or three suppliers to design the system top to bottom, healthcare practitioners and policymakers could, the report imagines, come together with information architecture experts to agree on a set of open standards that would make decentralised systems sufficiently interoperable, then let whatever appropriate mix of commercial, state-sponsored and civil society groups design the systems practitioners needed to manage information in their particular clinical setting. A high profile example of the successful application of this methodology already exists. It’s called the World Wide Web.

Crucially, this methodology, when attached to the electronic patient record, removes the argument for all our health details to be stored centrally. Instead, GPs and local health practitioners will be the natural guardians of this sensitive data once more. That means that individually, we can come to decisions about how we want to access our own health data, whether that be by storing it electronically with Google, Microsoft, the health service’s own fledgling “HealthSpace” patient access system, or simply under digital lock and key at our local surgery. And it means that collectively, the debates about if, when and how we let scientific researchers or civil servants access our data en masse in the name of medical advance or efficiency, can be had on their own terms, without the distraction of a juicy centralised database just waiting to be mined.

None of which is to say that if you vote Tory in the next election, you’ll be guaranteed a better NHS IT system. Such a radical change of direction for an IT project that is already partially implemented and at the same time four years overdue, will be a mean feat to pull off, both politically and pragmatically. But to understand if we are getting closer to the vision set out in this report, we must first understand what that vision is. That means embracing slightly more informed mental framework than “it mentions Google and Google [is/is not evil], so that [is/is not] okay”.

Some good coverage of this issue by Micahel Cross

“Identifying gleefully with the anti-government techie culture may become a problem once they actually are the government.”

I haven’t worked out how far I travel with Rafael Behr in last Sunday’s Observer. But he does have a tendency of coming up with really excellent writing on technology and politics. Here he is on the ultimate fate of the Tories enthusiastic embrace of the web ethos:

The Tories are sailing towards power on a strong technological tail wind. But for Cameron and Co to think that translates into a long-term political advantage, let alone a cogent ideology, is delusional. They look admiringly at the energy of social networking sites and at the voluntarism and entrepreneurship that characterise web innovation and they see in it a vast store of civic power. If only, they think, that could be harnessed to meet the social obligations that Labour thinks belong to the state. This is the Holy Grail of so-called compassionate conservatism: to pull back the tide of government, confident that civil society will grow organically into the gap. But there is no substance to it, no evidence, just wireless faith.

What will actually happen is that chunks of the public sector will be parcelled out to online providers, but instead of mass privatisation it will be called post-bureaucratisation. And when it emerges that Facebook and Mumsnet are not quite equal to the task of supplanting the welfare state, social policy will be back to the old, analogue drawing board.

Read the full article here.