One man’s data is another man’s treasure

The Open Data movement has the potential to modernise society – everything from healthcare to housing - beyond recognition. The UK government has long pioneered Open Data and one only has to look at how transport has been revolutionised by innovation borne from open and actionable data to see this. But the government’s decision to leave the Postal Address File in the hands of the newly privatised Royal Mail has set a worrying tone. Despite apparently being committed to decentralised and democratic data, the government has forfeited valuable information to a private company who could charge for access, or worse, withhold access altogether. If the UK continues to backtrack on its commitment to data, it could lose an extremely valuable lead.

Why is Open Data so important?

Recognising the importance of Open Data, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web and Linked Data initiator, formulated a 5-star deployment scheme. Within this structure, Open Data can be ranked from one star, in which information is made available on the Internet under an open license, most commonly in the form of a PDF; to five stars, where data is highly accessible, machine readable and linked to other data to provide context. The value of Open Data varies depending on its rating. One star data is virtually worthless whilst five star data has the potential to unleash a wave of start-ups.

The effects of lowly-rated Open Data are already evident. Using the Postal Address File as an example, in the US this data is machine readable and has spawned a niche industry using otherwise redundant information. The opening up of TFL data had a similar, if not greater effect. According to "Open Data: Six Stories About Impact in the UK," a report commissioned by Omidyar Network and launched at the Open Data Institute’s annual summit in November, there are now 362 innovative apps available, employing a workforce of thousands, and reaching approximately four million people. But even more staggering, users of these apps saved the equivalent of £15-£58 million of value of time in 2012 alone. The UK government’s decision to relinquish data to a private enterprise has robbed this possibility.
Looking further afield, Open Data would provide an impetus for innovation which would both reduce government expenditure through improvements to services and allow the government to learn and replicate services to provide greater quality of life for society, arguably their primary concern.

Let’s consider it from a different perspective. Apple built its own platform - the App Store - supplying high quality accessible data and providing an opportunity for external companies to contribute. Apple then reaps the rewards of this by re-purposing the best innovations, in this case privately developed apps and building them in to its own platform. The government could, and should, look to take a similar stance by considering itself as a platform, one which can provide Open Data in order to reduce costs by outsourcing whilst adopting the best ideas to imbed more firmly in society.

So why is the UK falling behind?

Despite elements of progress, such as the recent decision by Bristol City Council to provide housing data for the region, there are two overarching issues that are preventing truly Open Data. Firstly, the issue of data privacy can often act as a barrier to government attempts at providing information. The Department of Health recently attempted to anonymise and publish public data, but this was quickly squashed as people protested about sharing such personal information. Private enterprises, more so than governments, must also consider legal and licensing restrictions when contemplating Open Data.

Lastly and most importantly however, the government’s lead in Open Data is deteriorating largely due to a lack of knowledge and education. Government departments often see the process of releasing data as another checkbox job – which often results in useless one star data. However, the government must take a stance and inform its employees correctly. As the saying goes, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Although someone may consider a set of information useless, it is almost guaranteed someone else will put it to use. If we consider the progress already made, one can imagine how drastically areas such as healthcare could change if entrepreneurs were given the right tools.

Ultimately, the UK Government needs to revaluate how it engages with people to build better services. Open Data should be championed, but instead we are seeing it diminish. Nicola Sturgeon recently announced that her New Year’s resolution is to push for more innovation in public services. The government in general should adopt this mantra, and Open Data is essential to this. Much like how transport evolved for the better with the introduction of apps, all areas of society must be opened up, re-imagined and improved. Education from the top down and the removal of lazy solutions is key to this, but ultimately the government must realise that there should be no such thing as government-owned data. Public data should be available to all, and without it society is doomed to stagnate.

Aingaran Pillai, CTO and founder of Zaizi

Image Credit: Shutterstock/alexskopje