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

Using Open Data to Hold Companies to Account?

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Some rambling but possibly associated thoughts… I suggest you put Alice’s Restaurant on…

For some time now, I’ve had an uncomfortable feeling about the asymmetries that exist in the open data world as well as total confusion about the notion of transparency.

Part of the nub of the problem (for me) lies with the asymmetric disclosure requirements of public and private services. Public bodies have disclosure requirements (eg Local Government Transparency Code), private companies don’t. Public bodies disclose metrics and spend data, data that can be used in public contract tendering processes by private bodies against public ones tendering for the same service. The private body uses this information – and prices in a discount associated with not having to carry the cost of public reporting – into the bid. The next time the contract is tendered, the public body won’t have access to the (previously publicly disclosed) information that the private body originally had when making its bid. Possibly. I don’t know how tendering works. But from the outside, that’s how it appears to me. (Maybe there needs to be more transparency about the process?)

Open data is possibly a Big Thing. Who knows? Maybe it isn’t. Certainly the big consulting firms are calling it as something worth squillionty billionty of pounds. I’m not sure how they cost it. Maybe I need to dig through the references and footnotes in their reports (Cap Gemini’s Open Data Economy: Unlocking Economic Value by Opening Government and Public Data, Deloitte’s Open growth: Stimulating demand for open data in the UK or McKinsey’s Open data: Unlocking innovation and performance with liquid information). I don’t know how much those companies have received in fees for producing those reports, or how much they have received in consultancy fees associated with public open data initiatives – somehow, that spend data doesn’t seem to have been curated in a convenient way, or as a #opendatadata bundle? – but I have to assume they’re not doing it to fleece the public bodies and tee up benefits for their other private corporate clients.

Reminds me – I need to read Owen Boswarva’s Who supports the privatisation of Land Registry? and ODUG benefits case for open data release of an authoritative GP dataset again… And remind myself of who sits on the Open Data User Group (ODUG), and other UK gov departmental transparency boards…

And read the FTC’s report Data Brokers: A Call For Transparency and Accountability

Just by the by, one thing I’ve noticed about a lot of opendata releases is that, along with many other sorts of data, they are most useful when aggregated over time or space, and/or combined with other data sets. Looking at the month on month reports of local spending data from my local council is all very well, but it gets more interesting when viewed over several months or years. Looking at the month on month reports of local spending data from my local council is all very well, but it gets more interesting when looking at spend across councils, as for example in the case of looking at spend to particular companies.

Aggregating public data is one of the business models that helps create some of the GDP figure that contributes to the claimed, anticipated squillionty billionty pounds of financial benefit that will arise from open data – companies like opencorporates aggregating company data, or Spend Network aggregating UK public spending data who hope to start making money selling products off the back of public open data they have curated. Yes – I know a lot of work goes in to cleaning and normalising that data, and that exploiting the data collection as a whole is what their business models are about – and why they don’t offer downloads of their complete datasets, though maybe licenses require they do make links to, or downloads of, the original (“partial”) datasets available?

But you know where I think the real value of those companies lies? In being bought out. By Experian, or Acxiom (if there’s even a hint of personally identifiable data through reverse engineering in the mix), or whoever… A weak, cheap, cop out business model. Just like this: Farmers up in arms over potential misuse of data. (In case you missed it, Climate Corporation was one of the OpenData500 that aggregated shed loads of open data – according to Andrew Stott’s Open Data for Economic Growth report for the World Bank, Climate Corp “uses 60 years of detailed crop yield data, weather observations from one million locations in the United States and 14 terabytes of soil quality data – all free from the US Government – to provide applications that help farmers improve their profits by making better informed operating and financing decisions”. It was also recently acquired by Monsanto – Monsanto – for just under a billion US $. That’s part of the squillionty billionties I guess. Good ol’ open data. Monsanto.)

Sort of related to this – that is, companies buying others to asset strip them for their data – you know all that data of yours locked up in Facebook and Google? Remember MySpace? Remember NNTP? According to the Sophos blog, Just Because You Don’t Give Your Personal Data to Google Doesn’t Mean They Can’t Acquire It. Or that someone else might buy it.

And as another aside – Google – remember Google? They don’t really “read” your email, at least, people don’t, they just let algorithms process it so the algorithms can privately just use that data to send you ads, but no-one will ever know what the content of the email was to trigger you getting that ad (‘cos the cookie tracking, cookie matching services can’t unpick ad bids, ad displays, click thrus, surely, can they?!), well – maybe there are side effects: Google tips off cops after spotting child abuse images in email (for some reason, after initially being able to read that article, my browser can’t load it atm. Server fatigue?). Of course, if Google reads your ads for blind business purposes and ad serving is part of that blind process you accept it. But how does the law enforcement ‘because we can even though you didn’t warrant us to?’ angle work? Does the Post Office look inside the envelope? Is surveillance actually part of Google’s business model?

If you want to up the paranoia stakes, this (from Ray Corrigan, in particular: “Without going through the process of matching each government assurance with contradictory evidence, something I suspect would be of little interest, I would like to draw your attention to one important misunderstanding. It seems increasingly to be the belief amongst MPs that blanket data collection and retention is acceptable in law and that the only concern should be the subsequent access to that data. Assertions to this effect are simply wrong.”) + that. Because one day, one day, they may just find your name on an envelope of some sort under a tonne of garbage. Or an algorithm might… Kid.

But that’s not what this post is about – what this post is about is… Way back when, so very long ago, not so very long ago, there was a license called GPL. GPL. And GPL was a tainting license. findlaw describes the consequences of reusing GPL licensed code as follows: Kid, ‘if a user of GPL code decides to distribute or publish a work that “in whole or in part contains or is derived from the [open source] or any part thereof,” it must make the source code available and license the work as a whole at no charge to third parties under the terms of the GPL (thereby allowing further modification and redistribution).

‘In other words, this can be a trap for the unwary: a company can unwittingly lose valuable rights to its proprietary code.’

Now, friends, GPL scared people so much that another license called LGPL was created, and LGPL allowed you to use LGPL licensed code without fear of tainting your own code with the requirement to open up your own code as GPL would require of it. ‘Cos licenses can be used against you.

And when it comes to open data licenses, they seem to be like LGPL. You can take open public data and aggregate it, and combine it, and mix it and mash it and do what you like with it and that’s fine… And then someone can come along buy that good work you’ve done and do what they want with it. Even Monsanto. Even Experian. And that’s good and right, right? Wrong. The ODUG. Remember the ODUG? The ODUG is the Open Data User Group that lobbies government for what datasets to open up next. And who’s on the ODUG? Who’s there, sitting there, on the ODUG bench, right there, right next to you?

Kid… you wanna be the all-open, all-liberal open data advocate? You wanna see open data used for innovation and exploitation and transparency and all the Good Things (big G, big T) that open data might be used for? Or you wanna sit down on the ODUG bench? With Deloitte, and Experian, and so on…

And if you think that using a tainting open data license so anyone who uses that data has to share it likewise, aggregated, congregated, conjugated, disaggregated, mixed, matched, joined, summarised or just otherwise and anyways processed, is a Good Thing…? Then kid… they’ll all move away from you on the bench there…

Because when they come to buy you, they won’t your data to be tainted in any way that means they’ll have to give up the commercial advantage they’ll have from buying up your work on that open data…

But this post? That’s not what this post is about. This post about holding companies to account. Open data used to hold companies to account. There’s a story to be told that’s not been told about Dr Foster, and open NHS data and fear-mongering and the privatisation of the NHS and that’s one thing…

But another thing is how government might use data to help us protect ourselves. Because government can’t protect us. Government can’t make companies pay taxes and behave responsibly and not rip off consumers. Government needs our help to do that. But can government help us do that too? Protect and Survive.

There’s a thing that DECC – the Department of Energy and Climate Change – do, and that’s publish statistics about domestic energy price statistics and industrial energy price statistics and road fuel and other petroleum product price statistics, and they’re all meaningless. Because they bear little resemblance to spot prices paid when consumers pay their domestic energy bills and road fuel and other petroleum product bills.

To find out what those prices are you have to buy the data from someone like Experian, from something like Experian’s Catalist fuel price data – daily site retail fuel prices – data product. You may be able to caluclate the DECC statistics from that data (or you may not) but you certainly can’t go the other way, from the DECC statistics to anything like the Experian data.

But can you go into your local library and ask to look at a copy of the Experian data? A copy of the data that may or may not be used to generate the DECC road fuel and other petroleum product price statistics (how do they generate those statistics anyway? What raw data do they use to generate those statistics?)

Can you imagine ant-eye-ant-eye-consumer data sets being published by your local council or your county council or your national government that can be used to help you hold companies to account and help you tell them that you know they’re ripping you off and your council off and your government off and that together, you’re not going to stand for it?

Can you imagine your local council publishing the forecourt fuel prices for one petrol stations, just one petrol station, in your local council area every day? And how about if they do it for two petrol stations, two petrol stations, each day? And if they do it for three forecourts, three, can you imagine if they do it for three petrol stations…? And can you, can you imagine prices for 50 petrol stations a day being published by your local council, your council helping you inform yourself about how you’re being manipulated, can you imagine…? (It may not be so hard – food hygiene ratings are published for food retail environments across the England, Northern Ireland and Wales…

So let’s hear it for open data, and how open data can be used to hold corporates to account, and how public bodies can use open data to help you make better decisions (which is a good neoliberal position to take and one which the other folk on the bench tell you that that’s what you want and that and markets work, though they also fall short of telling you that the models say that markets work with full information but you don’t have the information, and even if you did, you wouldn’t understand it, because you don’t really know how to make a good decision, but at the end of the day you don’t want a decision, you just want a good service fairly delivered, but they don’t tell that it’s all right to just want that…)

And let’s hear it for public bodies making data available whether it’s open or not, making it available by paying for it if they have to and making it available via library services so that we can start using it to start holding companies to account and start helping our public services, and ourselves, protect ourselves from the attacks being mounted on us by companies, and their national government supporters, who take on debt, and who allow them to take on debt, to make dividend payouts but not capital investment and subsidise the temporary driving down of prices (which is NOT a capital investment) through debt subsidised loss leading designed to crush competition in a last man standing contest that will allow monopolistic last man standing price hikes at the end of it…

And just remember, if there’s anything you want, you know where you can get it… At Alice’s… or the library… only they’re shutting them down, aren’t they…? So that leaves what..? Google?

Written by Tony Hirst

August 3, 2014 at 12:10 am

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