So What’s Open Government Data Good For? Government and “Independent Advisers”, maybe?

Although I got an invite to today’s “Government Transparency: Opening Up Public Services” briefing, I didn’t manage to attend (though I’m rather wishing I had), but I did manage to keep up with what was happening through the #openuk hashtag commentary.

#openuk tweeps

It all kicked off with the Prime Minister’s Letter to Cabinet Ministers on transparency and open data, which sets out the roadmap for government data releases over the coming months in the areas of health, education, criminal justice, transport and public spending; it also sets the scene for the forthcoming Open Public Services White Paper (see also the public complement to that letter: David Cameron’s article in The Telegraph on transparency).

The Telegraph article suggests there will be a “profound impact” in four areas:

– First, it will enable choice, particularly for patients and parents. …
– Second, it will raise standards. All the evidence shows that when you give professionals information about other people’s performance, there’s a race to the top as they learn from the best. …
– Third, this information is going to help us mend our economy. To begin with, it’s going to save money. Already, the information we have published on public spending has rooted out waste, stopped unnecessary duplication and put the brakes on ever-expanding executive salaries. Combine that with this new information on the performance of our public services, and there will be even more pressure to get real value for taxpayers’ money.
– But transparency can help with the other side of the economic equation too – boosting enterprise. Estimates suggest the economic value of government data could be as much as £6 billion a year. Why? Because the possibilities for new business opportunities are endless. Imagine the innovations that could be created – the apps that provide up-to-date travel information; the websites that compare local school performance. But releasing all this data won’t just support new start-ups – it will benefit established industries too.

David Cameron’s article in The Telegraph on transparency

All good stuff… all good rhetoric. But what does that actually mean? What are people actually going to be able to do differently, Melody?

As far as I can tell, the main business models for making money on the web are:

sell the audience: the most obvious example of this is to sell adverts to the visitors of your site. The rate advertisers pay is dependent on the number of people who see the adds, and their specificity (different media attract different, possibly niche, audiences. If an audience is the one you’re particularly trying to target, you’re likely to pay more than you would for a general audience, in part because it means you don’t have to go out and find that focussed audience yourself.) Another example is to sell information about the users of your site (for example, banks selling shopping data).

take a cut: so for example, take an affiliate fee, referral fee or booking fee for each transaction brokered through your site, or levy some other transaction cost.

Where data is involved, there is also the opportunity to analyse other peoples’ data and then sell analysis of that data back to the pubishing organisations as consultancy. Or maybe use that data to commercial advantage in put together tenders and approaches to public bodies?

When all’s said and done, though, the biggest potential is surely within government itself? By making data from one department or agency available, other departments or agencies will have easier access to it. Within departments and agencies too, open data has the potential to reduce friction and barriers to access, as well as opening up the very existence of data sets that may be being created in duplicate fashion across areas of government.

By consuming their own and each others’ open data, departments will also start to develop processes that improve the cleanliness and quality of data sets, (for example, see Putting Public Open Data to Work…? and Open Data Processes – Taps, Query Paths/Audit Trails and Round Tripping; Library Location Data on gives examples of how the same data can be released in several different (i.e. not immediately consistent) ways).

I’m more than familiar with the saying that “the most useful thing that can be done with your data will probably be done by someone else”, but if an organisation can’t find a way to make use of its own data, why should anyone else even try?! Especially if it means they have to go through the difficulty of cleaning the published data and preparing it for first use. By making use of open data as part of everyday government processes: a) we know the data’s good (hopefully!); b) cleanliness and inconsistency issues will be detected by the immediate publisher/user of the data; c) we know the data will have at least one user.

Finally, one other thing that concerns me is the extent to which “the public” want access to data in order to provide choice. As far as I can tell, choice is often the enemy of contentment; choice can sow the seeds of doubt and inner turmoil when to all intents and purposes there is no choice. I live on an island with a single hospital and not the most effective of rural transport systems. I’d guess the demographics of the island skew old and poor. So being able to “choose” a hospital with performance figures better than the local one for a given procedure is quite possibly no choice at all if I want visitors, or to be able to attend the hospital as an outpatient.

But that’s by the by: because the real issues are that the data that will be made available will in all likelihood be summary statistic data, which actually masks much of the information you’d need to make an informed decision; and if there is any meaningful intelligence in the data, or its summary statistics, you’ll need to know how to interpret the statistics, or even just read the pretty graphs, in order to take anything meaningful form them. And therein lies a public education issue…

Maybe then, there is a route to commercialisation of public facing public data? By telling people the data’s there for you to make the informed choice, the lack of knowledge about how to use that information effectively will open up (?!) a whole new sector of “independent advisers”: want to know how to choose a good school? Ask your local independent education adviser; they can pay for training on how to use the monolithic, more-stats-than-you-can-throw-a-distribution-at one-stop education data portal and charge you to help you decide which school is best for your child. Want comforting when you have to opt for treatment in a hospital that the league tables say are failing? Set up an appointment with your statistical counsellor, who can explain to you that actually things may not be so bad as you fear. And so on…

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

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