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Trying to find useful things to do with emerging technologies in open education

#online12 Reflections – Can Open Public Data Be Disruptive to Information Vendors?

Whilst preparing for my typically overloaded #online12 presentation, I thought I should make at least a passing attempt at contextualising it for the corporate attendees. The framing idea I opted for, but all too briefly reviewed, was whether open public data might be disruptive to the information industry, particularly purveyors of information services in vertical markets.

If you’ve ever read Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma, you’ll be familiar with the idea behind disruptive innovations: incumbents allow start-ups with cheaper ways of tackling the less profitable, low-quality end of the market to take that part of the market; the start-ups improve their offerings, take market share, and the incumbent withdraws to the more profitable top-end. Learn more about this on OpenLearn: Sustaining and disruptive innovation or listen again to the BBC In Business episode on The Innovator’s Dilemma, from which the following clip is taken.

In the information industry, the following question then arises: will the availability of free, open public data be adopted at the low, or non-consuming end of the market, for example by micro- and small companies who haven’t necessarily be able to buy in to expensive information or data services, either on financial grounds or through lack of perceived benefits? Will the appearance of new aggregation services, often built around screenscrapers and/or public open data sources start to provide useful and useable alternatives at the low end of the market, in part because of their (current) lack of comprehensiveness or quality? And if such services are used, will they then start to improve in quality, comprehensiveness and service offerings, and in so doing start a ratcheting climb to quality that will threaten the incumbents?

Here are a couple of quick examples, based around some doodles I tried out today using data from OpenCorporates and OpenlyLocal. The original sketch (demo1() in the code here) was a simple scraper on Scraperwiki that accepted a person’s name, looked them up via a director search using the new 0.2 version of the OpenCorporates API, pulled back the companies they were associated with, and then looked up the other directors associated with those companies. For example, searching around Nigel Richard Shadbolt, we get this:

One of the problems with the data I got back is that there are duplicate entries for company officers; as Chris Taggart explained, “[data for] UK officers [comes] from two Companies House sources — data dump and API”. Another problem is that officers’ records don’t necessarily have start/end dates associated with them, so it may be the case that directors’ terms of office don’t actually overlap within a particular company. In my own scraper, I don’t check to see whether an officer is marked as “director”, “secretary”, etc, nor do I check to see whether the company is still a going concern or whether it has been dissolved. Some of these issues could be addressed right now, some may need working on. But in general, the data quality – and the way I work with it – should only improve from this quick’n’dirty minimum viable hack. As it is, I now have a tool that at a push will give me a quick snapshot of some of the possible director relationships surrounding a named individual.

The second sketch (demo2() in the code here) grabbed a list of elected council members for the Isle of Wight Council from another of Chris’ properties, OpenlyLocal, extracted the councillors names, and then looked up directorships held by people with exactly the same name using a two stage exact string match search. Here’s the result:

As with many data results, this is probably most meaningful to people who know the councillors – and companies – involved. The results may also surprise people who know the parties involved if they start to look-up the companies that aren’t immediately recognisable: surely X isn’t a director of Y? Here we have another problem – one of identity. The director look-up I use is based on an exact string match: the query to OpenCorporates returns directors with similar names, which I then filter to leave only directors with exactly the same name (I turn the strings to lower case so that case errors don’t cause a string mismatch). (I also filter companies returned to be solely ones with a gb jurisdiction.) In doing the lookup, we therefore have the possibility of false positive matches (X is returned as a director, but it’s not the X we mean, even though they have exactly the same name); and false negative lookups (eg where we look up a made up director John Alex Smith who is actually recorded in one or more filings as (the again made-up) John Alexander Smith.

That said, we do have a minimum viable research tool here that gives us a starting point for doing a very quick (though admittedly heavily caveated) search around companies that a councillor may be (or may have been – I’m not checking dates, remember) associated with.

We also have a tool around which we can start to develop a germ of an idea around conflict of interest detection.

The Isle of Wight Armchair Auditor, maintained by hyperlocal blog @onthewight (and based on an original idea by @adrianshort) hosts local spending information relating to payments made by the Isle of Wight Council. If we look at the payments made to a company, we see the spending is associated with a particular service area.

If you’re a graph thinker, as I am;-), the following might then suggest itself to you:

  1. From OpenlyLocal, we can get a list of councillors and the committees they are on;
  2. from OnTheWight’s Armchair Auditor, we can get a list of companies the council has spent money with;
  3. from OpenCorporates, we can get a list of the companies that councillors may be directors of;
  4. from OpenCorporates, we should be able to get identifiers for at least some of the companies that the council has spent money with;
  5. putting those together, we should be able to see whether or not a councillor may be a director of a company that the council is spending with and how much is being spent with them in which spending areas;
  6. we can possibly go further, if we can associate council committees with spending areas – are there councillors who are members of a committee that is responsible for a particular spending area who are also directors of companies that the council has spent money with in those spending areas? Now there’s nothing wrong with people who have expertise in a particular area sitting on a related committee (it’s probably a Good Thing). And it may be that they got their experience by working as a director for a company in that area. Which again, could be a Good Thing. But it begs a transparency question that a journalist might well be interested in asking. And in this case, with open data to hand, might technology be able to help out? For example, could we automatically generate a watch list to check whether or not councillors who are directors of companies that have received monies in particular spending areas (or more generally) have declared an interest, as would be appropriate? I think so…(caveated of course by the fact that there may be false positives and false negatives in the report…; but it would be a low effort starting point).

Once you get into this graph based thinking, you can take it mich further of course, for example looking to see whether councillors in one council are directors of companies that deal heavily with neighbouring councils… and so on.. (Paranoid? Me? Nah… Just trying to show how graphs work and how easy it can be to start joining dots once you start to get hold of the data…;-)

Anyway – this is all getting off the point and too conspiracy based…! So back to the point, which was along the lines of this: here we have the fumblings of a tool for mixing and matching data from two aggregators of public information, OpenlyLocal and OpenCorporates that might allow us to start running crude conflict of interest checks. (It’s easy enough to see how we can run the same idea using lists of MP names from the TheyWorkForYou API; or looking up directorships previously held by Ministers and the names of companies of lobbiests they meet (does WhosLobbying have an API of such things?). And so on…

Now I imagine there are commercial services around that do this sort of thing properly and comprehensively, and for a fee. But it only took me a couple of hours, for free, to get started, and having started, the paths to improvement become self-evident… and some of them can be achieved quite quickly (it just takes a little (?!) but of time…) So I wonder – could the information industry be at risk of disruption from open public data?

PS if you’re into conspiracies, Cambridge’s Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) has a post-doc positions open with Professior John Naughton on The impact of global networking on the nature, dissemination and impact of conspiracy theories. The position is complemented by several parallel fellowships, including ones on Rational Choice and Democratic Conspiracies and Ideals of Transparency and Suspicion of Democracy.

Written by Tony Hirst

November 22, 2012 at 7:37 pm

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  1. [...] Because I have a deeply suspicious mind. [...]

  2. [...] preparing for a recent presentation about open data, it struck me that OpenCorporates has the potential to be disruptive in the sense of Clayton Christensen’s “Innovator’s Dilemma”: whilst the [...]


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