Tim Davies has done a wonderful job of combing through the fine print of the UK government’s Autumn statement open data measures (PDF), highlighting the dynamics that appear to be driving it, and the data conspicuous by its absence.
Here are the passages most relevant for journalists. Firstly, following the money and accountability:
“The [Data Strategy Board] body seeking public data will be reliant upon the profitability of the PDG [Public Data Group] in order to have the funding it needs to secure the release of data that, if properly released in free forms, would likely undermine the current trading revenue model of the PDG. That doesn’t look like the foundation for very independent and effective governance or regulation to open up core reference data!
“Furthermore, whilst the proposed terms for the DSB [Data Strategy Board] terms state that “Data users from outside the public sector, including representatives of commercial re-users and the Open Data community, will represent at least 30% of the members of DSB”, there are also challenges ahead to ensure data users from civil society interests are represented on the board”
Secondly, the emphasis on clinical data and issues surrounding privacy and the sale of personal data:
“The first measures in the Cabinet Office’s paper are explicitly not about open data as public data, but are about the restricted sharing of personal medical records with life-science research firms – with the intent of developing this sector of the economy. With a small nod to “identifying specified datasets for open publication and linkage”, the proposals are more centrally concerned with supporting the development of a Clinical Practice Research Datalink (CPRD) which will contain interlinked ‘unidentifiable, individual level’ health records, by which I interpret the ability to identify a particular individual with some set of data points recorded on them in primary and secondary care data, without the identity of the person being revealed.
“The place of this in open data measures raises a number of questions, such as whether the right constituencies have been consulted on these measures and why such a significant shift in how the NHS may be handing citizens personal data is included in proposals unlikely to be heavily scrutinised by patient groups? In the past, open data policies have been very clear that ‘personal data’ is out of scope – and the confusion here raises risks to public confidence in the open data agenda. Leaving this issue aside for the moment, we also need to critically explore the evidence that the release of detailed health data will “reinforce the UK’s position as a global centre for research and analytics and boost UK life sciences”. In theory, if life science data is released digitally and online, then the firms that can exploit it are not only UK firms – but the return on the release of UK citizens personal data could be gained anywhere in the world where the research skills to work with it exist.”
UPDATE: More on that in The Guardian.
Thirdly, it looks like this data will allow journalists to scrutinise welfare and credit (so plenty of material for the tabloids and mid-market press), but not data that scrutinises corporations or governments:
“When we look at the other administrative datasets proposed for release in the Measures the politicisation of open data release is evident: Fit Note Data; Universal Credit Data; and Welfare Data (again discussed for ‘linking’ implying we’re not just talking about aggregate statistics) are all proposed for increased release, with specific proposals to “increase their value to industry”. By contrast, no mention of releasing more details on the tax share paid by corporations, where the UK issues arms export licenses, or which organisations are responsible for the most employment law violations. Although the stated aims of the Measures include increasing “transparency and accountability” it would not be unreasonable to read the detail of the measures as very one-sided on this point: and emphasising industry exploitation of data far more than good governance and citizen rights with respect to data.
“The blurring of the line between ‘personal data’ and ‘open data’, and the state’s assumption of the right to share personal data for industrial gain should give cause for concern, and highlights the need for build a stronger constituency scrutinising government open data action.”
It’s nice to see a data initiative being greeted with a critical eye rather than Three Cheers for the Numbers.
UPDATE: On a similar note, Access Info Europe highlights problems with the Open Government Partnership, which “must significantly improve its internal access to information policy to meet the standards it is advancing”. Specifically:
“The policy should be reformed to incorporate basic open data principles such as that information will be made available in a machine-readable, electronic format free of restrictions on reuse.”
“A key problem is the lack of detail in the policy, which has the result of leaving important matters to the discretion of the OGP. Other key problems include:
» The failure of the policy to recognise the fundamental human right to information;
» The significantly overbroad and discretionary regime of exceptions;
» The failure of the draft Policy to put in place a system of protections and sanctions.”