Open data, city data and privatised utilities


Some thoughts from this month’s Teacamp gathering at Imperial College London

This month’s Teacamp London gathering was markedly different to our normal gatherings on Victoria Street for a number of reasons. The first one was venue: We were in the magnificent setting of Imperial College London, with its strange combination of 1950s concrete monoliths, 21st Century glass towers and ornate stone and brick palaces from the days when the sun never set on the British Empire. I’d never been in there before (though had been around it in my early Whitehall days).

Civil service reform

Puffles and I poottled down there having just been to a Cambridge Public Policy seminar at Clare College, Cambridge with Professor Colin Talbot, who runs the excellent WhitehallWatch blog. Professor Talbot is one of the pioneers of social media in an academic public policy context. I shared a platform with him and three other eminent professors of public policy at the University of Bristol in 2012. I recommend the works of all four of them – Alex MarshColin TalbotMatthew Flinders and Peter John – to anyone with an interest in policy making systems and processes. Furthermore, I recommend Professor Flinders’ book Defending Politics for people across the political spectrum. (Even though I disagree with the thrust of what he has to say about social and digital media!) In a similar vein, I also recommend Doing Politics by Dr Tony Wright, former chair of the Public Administration Select Committee and author of Rebuilding the House, which followed the Expenses scandal.

The elephant in the room

Whenever I’m at an ‘open policy’ event, or where the theme is being discussed, I always throw the following question into the mix:

To what extent do ministers and decision-makers want to be influenced by the results of people using open policy systems and activities?

It’s a simple and straight-forward question, but one that I’ve not yet had a firm answer to from those who are in positions of power. Furthermore, my guess is that the answer will be different for each individual, irrespective of which political party or political tradition they are from or subscribe to. Indeed, Professor Talbot said in response to that question I put to him, ministers can demonstrate their openness by opening up the budget-making processes. He said the UK has the most closed budget-setting process in the western world. Jill Rutter of the Institute for Government nailed this point in a blogpost following Pastygate.

What’s this got to do with citydata?

The principles are similar: To what extent can people and institutions use data to influence the decisions that they make? At a grass roots level, the use of city data can influence whether I choose to go out into town because my local council now has a live bus app. Having spent longer than is sensible waiting sometimes over an hour for a bus to turn up, now I can time when or whether to leave the house. At a high macro level, data can influence whether a change of policy is needed or not. Perhaps one of the biggest use – or rather review of data and scientific evidence so as to influence policy, was The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change. Compare the resources that went into that review,  the number of people who worked on that review versus other policy ‘reviews’ such as the widely-panned Beecroft Review.

What did you learn at Teacamp?

Ross Atken created a lovely illustration of the presentations and discussions we had. This Teacamp gathering benefitted greatly from the input of academics – in particular a number of PhD students at Imperial College’s Digital Economy Laboratory. This gave an insight into how academia can influence what the civil service does (in this case, the Cabinet Office-backed Open Data Institute) to help improve public services. The core message was to persuade organisations to open up their data banks and data sets to allow developers to create things with them that can help improve both policy making and public service delivery.

“There’s a problem somewhere, isn’t there?”


“What is it?”

One of the things I’ve often spoken about is the relatively low levels of digital literacy at senior decision-making levels in organisations. How can you persuade an organisation to free up its data sets when you have a board that possibly doesn’t even know it holds such data sets, let alone has any inkling of how beneficial making them freely available could be to the wider population? In this short digital video, Alice Newton hits the nail on the head in terms of what the problem is, and how organisations might overcome it. In this case, her case study is none other than the Prime Minister.

It’s also one of the reasons why when making the social media digital video guides I commissioned the people I did: They are digital natives who have grown up with the technology as being the norm. Thus they are more likely to have the skills and awareness of how to use the tools to a level that is greater than my own. But how do you get such people ‘through the door’ and get them to feed into decision-making processes? It’s a problem I’ve stumbled across in private sector organisations too – ones that perhaps you’d expect to be far more familiar with social and digital media and with big data, than they currently are.

“Hang on, we paid a lot of money for that data! Why should we give it away?”

This is the other big challenge – for which I don’t have a simple answer.

Big data is becoming big business and is becoming big profits. One of the first systematic examples of such data being used was with the Tesco clubcard. By persuading customers through a series of offers and incentives to swipe their clubcard into the machine before paying, the company is able to pick up a huge amount of data on people’s shopping habits. It is with that data that they can then decide who to target with what – tailored advertising long before the likes of Facebook and Amazon got in on the act. But that data is extremely commercially sensitive – why would Tesco want to give such data away? What’s in it for them?

You then have the extremely grey area that is the privatised utilities.

“What makes the privatised utilities a grey area?”

Although nominally private companies, they provide critical infrastructure without which cities could not function. Advances in technology has made what was once the twinkle in someone’s eye (in this example, Sir Tim Berners-Lee) something that today I would argue is a piece of critical infrastructure: The internet. Without the internet, I’m screwed. Therefore, the state has an interest in the functioning of critical infrastructure – not least from a civil contingencies point of view. One of the basic things owners and managers of critical infrastructure (and large organisations) need is a business continuity plan: What would you do if a key part of your business machine goes down?

In terms of making city data available for developers to work with, privatised utilities may well argue that they need to be compensated for the costs of collecting, storing and processing the data. One of the debates locally that streams across Puffles’ Twitter feed on a fairly regular basis is whether local authorities should release or ‘sell’ the data they collect from which they can make money from. Extremely tempting in these tough economic times. How do you persuade a cash-strapped local authority to make the data available for free? How do you persuade the privatised utilities to make their data available for free?

The final question I put to the panel was whether, as a last resort Parliament may, in the future have to legislate to compel some organisations to release their data where persuasion ultimately does not work. Understandably, civil servants in the room were a little reluctant to take that one on. But for those of us on the outside, it’s one of those things to keep in the background unless/until all other avenues have been exhausted. As we haven’t begun to identify what those other avenues might be and what will be down them, I can’t see Parliament either wanting or needing to legislate in the short to medium term. But there is – or was until 2010 – precedence in the law compelling firms to disclose data beyond things like the rules of stock markets and general business law. These being the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR), which until the Information Commissioner’s ruling of 2010, subjected utilities to those regulations. Personally I disagree with the Information Commissioner’s ruling, taking a view that those that provide public services – especially critical infrastructure – should be subject to EIR and the Freedom of Information Act.

Should data be published proactively or should people have to ask for it?

One thing that wouldn’t work for a smooth open data function is having a system where people have to ask for the data time and time again. An FoI regime where people have to submit requests simply builds in an unneeded inefficiency into the system. Far better to have the data systematically and proactively published, with systems in place to allow people and organisations to be informed when there is a new dataset that has been uploaded/released, or whether a new live datastream has come online. You also have the issue of ‘who owns the data?’ In the case of public data, my view is that the taxpayer has already paid for it. Why should they need to ask for it or pay for it again? (Hence my issue with local authorities charging for datasets). With data from the privatised utilities, have the customers through the processes of being billed already paid for the datasets? How much extra does it actually cost these otherwise very profitable firms to release datasets that would otherwise not compromise data protection principles?

“This sounds like the future battlefield”

Absolutely. The only thing is that there are more than two competing interests. There will be those pushing for free open data, those pushing for ‘paid for’ open data, those not wanting to release data for commercial reasons, those not wanting to release data for data protection reasons…and finally those individuals in decision making posts who simply don’t have a clue about what all this data stuff is. What the final result will be (if anything is ever final in this changing world) remains to be seen.

Nettie Williams of the Government Digital Service with the GDS' mascot Baby Puffles, and Puffles the Dragon Fairy
Nettie Williams of the Government Digital Service with the GDS’ mascot Baby Puffles, and Puffles the Dragon Fairy – Photo by Louise Kidney (@LouLouK)

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