An open letter to Tim Berners-Lee about open government

Following the tone set so succinctly by Glyn Moody, I thought I would add my own thoughts on what Sir Tim should say to the government when he bends their ear on transparency.

Firstly, I would second everything that Glyn says.

But I’m going to be cynical and strategic, and urge Sir Tim to emphasise the importance of open data on a couple of areas that are close to the government’s hearts.

1. Stimulating growth in the economy.

You could compare a genuinely significant release of public data to an economic stimulus.

Like cutting VAT, only cheaper.

At minimal cost you could have a new raw material that startups and established media organisations alike could create new value out of. Some of those would create commercial implications far exceeding any revenue generated within government (as research recently suggested in relation to the comparably valuable Ordnance Survey data).

Repeat after me: jobs and money, jobs and money.

2. Efficiencies and passing on costs in the public sector

Samuel Butler’s Erewhon puts it particularly well:

You will sooner gain your end by “appealing to men’s pockets, in which they have generally something of their own, than to their heads, which contain for the most part little but borrowed or stolen property”

Public sector spending is going to drop whichever party is in power. Let’s play to that.

By opening up public data the government will effectively be able to pass on some development costs to willing volunteers who mash up the data in their own ways. The difference is that people will do this to their own agendas and for their own benefit.

But more importantly, the results of this experimentation – if supported and encouraged – should produce work that makes it more efficient to interact with public data and therefore public bodies. If I can use a slider to find out which schools are within 3 miles, that saves 20 minutes of someone answering a phonecall in the local education department. If I can have a Facebook app which tells other users how much money alcohol abuse is costing my local hospital, it might save the NHS a bob or two. You get the picture. 

Oh yes, and it’s important for democracy, civic engagement and digital literacy

The limited data that’s available in the UK is an embarrassment. Imagine what MySociety could do with what’s available in the US.

Likewise, for all the talk of transparency, the recent announcement that Cabinet Papers and information relating to the Royal Family would be exempt from the Freedom of Information act is a backward step. Heather Brooke’s concerns proved right.

The cynic in me sees the appointment of Berners-Lee as an action intended to generate the illusion of movement – “We’re working on it”. But the Freedom of Information act is possibly the most positive contribution the Labour government has made to this country’s political health since it came to power, and not to follow through on promises made would be an enormous political mistake.

So I will add one request to my advice above: I would stress that any discussion of transparency acknowledges the importance of requiring any organisation using public funds to make their data public too. So much public work is outsourced to the private sector that it is particularly difficult to see whether public money is spent responsibly.

More at Podnosh, BBC, Emma Mulqueeny, Simon Dickson and Amused Cynicism.

4 thoughts on “An open letter to Tim Berners-Lee about open government

  1. Pingback: An open letter to Tim Berners-Lee about open government - Orkutadda.com - Orkut scraps, orkut graphics, orkut, scraps, html, graphics, glitter, codes, tools, layouts, profiles, scrapbook

  2. Pingback: An open letter to Tim Berners-Lee about open government - Orkutadda.com - Orkut scraps, orkut graphics, orkut, scraps, html, graphics, glitter, codes, tools, layouts, profiles, scrapbook

  3. paul canning

    Thanks for the link.

    O/s is an example of much that’s wrong with ‘outsourcing’, it amounts to sloshing money inefficiently around the wider public sector and severely restricts what other public sector bodies, like local councils, can do.

    Be good to hear TBL giving that one a very loud and embarrassing (for O/s) blast.

    Reply

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