A Quick Look Around the Open Data Landscape

I haven’t done a round up of open data news for a bit, so I here’s a quick skim through some of my current open browser tabs on the subject.

First up, the rather concerning news that DCLG [are] to withhold funding from district over transparency “failings”. Noticing a failure to publish information about a termination of employment pay settlement, it was also noticed in a letter to Rother District Council that it “appears from your website that your council has not published data in a number of important areas, for example, contracts over £5,000, land and assets, senior salaries, an organisation chart, trade union facility time, parking revenues, grants to the voluntary sector and the like”, in contravention of the Local Government Transparency Code 2014.

From running several open data training days for representatives of local councils and government departments on behalf of Open Knowledge recently, I know from looking at council websites that finding “transparency” data on official websites is not always that simple. (The transparency” keyword sometimes(?!) works, “open data” frequently doesn’t…; often using a web search engine with a site: search limit on the council website works better than the local search.) I’m still largely at a loss as to what can usefully be done with things like spending data, though I do have a couple of ideas about how we might feed some of that data into some small investigations…

However, I’m not convinced that punishing councils by withholding funding is the best approach to promoting open data publication. On the other hand, promoting effective data workflows that naturally support open data publishing (and hopefully, from that, “an increase in reuse within the organisation as data availability/awareness/accessibility improves”) and encouraging effective transparency through explaining how decisions were made in the context of available data (whilst at the same time making data available so that the data basis of those decisions can be checked) would both seem to be more useful approaches?

The funding being withheld from Rother Council seems to be the new burdens funding, which presumably helps cover the costs of publishing transparency data. Something that’s bugged me over the years (eg Some Sketchnotes on a Few of My Concerns About #opendata) is how privatisation of contracts is associated with several asymmetries in the public vs private provision of services. On the one hand, public bodies have transparency and freedom of information “burdens” placed on them, which means: 1) they take a financial hit, needing to cover the costs of meeting those burdens; 2) they are accountable, in that the public has access to certain sorts of information about their activities. Private contractors are not subject to the same terms, so not only can they competitively bid less than public bodies for service delivery, they also get to avoid the same public disclosure requirements about their activities and potentially are less accountable than the public body counterparts; who remain overall accountable as commissioners of the services; but presumably have to cover the costs of that accountability, as well as the administrative overheads of managing the private contracts.

Now it seems that the ICO is call[ing] for greater transparency around government outsourcing, publishing a report and a roadmap on the subject that recommend a “transparency by design” approach in which councils should:

– Make arrangements to publish as much information as possible, including the contract and regular performance information, in open formats with a licence permitting re-use.

– When drawing up the contract, think about any types of information that the contractor will hold on their behalf eg information that a public authority would reasonably need to see to monitor performance. Describe this in an annex to the contract. This is itself potentially in scope of a FOIA request.

– Set out in the contract the responsibilities of both parties when dealing with FOIA requests. Look at standard contract terms (eg the Model Services Contract ) for guidance.

Around about the same time, a Cabinet Office policy document on Transparency of suppliers and government to the public also appeared. Whilst on the one hand “Strategic Suppliers to Government will supply data on a contract basis that is then aggregated to the departmental level and aggregated again to the Government level” means it should be easier to see how much particular companies receive from government (assuming they don’t operate as BigCo Red Ltd, BigCo Blue Ltd, BigCo Purple Ltd, using a different company for each contract) it does mean that data can presumably also be aggregated to a point of meaninglessness.

(Just by the by, I tried looking through various NHS Commissioning Group and NHS Trust spending datasets looking to see how much was going to Virgin Care and other private providers. Whilst I could see from news reports and corporate websites that those operators were providing services in particular areas, I couldn’t find any spend items associated with them. Presumably I was looking in the wrong place… but if so, it suggests that even if you do have a question about spend in a particular context with a particular provider, it doesn’t necessarily follow that even if you think you know how to drive this open transparency data stuff, you’ll get anywhere…)

When looking at affordability of contracts, and retaining private vs public contractors, it would seem only fair that any additional costs associated with the contracting body having to meet transparency requirements “on behalf of” the private body should be considered part of the cost of the contract. If private bodies complain that this gives an unfair advantage to public bodies competing for service provision, they can perhaps opt-in to FOI regulations and transparency codes and cover the costs of disclosure of information themselves to level the playing field that way?

Another by the by… in appointments land, Mike Bracken has been appointed the UK’s first Chief Data Officer (CDO), suggesting that we should talk about “data as a public asset. In this regard, the National Information Infrastructure still appears to be a thing, for the moment at least. An implementation document was published in March that has some words in it (sic…!)…

As purdah approached, there was a sudden flurry of posts on the data.gov.uk blog. Four challenges for the future of Open Data identified the following as major issues:

  • Pushing Open Data where it is not fully embraced
  • Achieving genuine (Open) Data by default; (this actually seems to be more about encouraging open data workflows/open data (re)use – “a general move to adopt data practice into the way public services are run”)
  • Improving public confidence in Open Data
  • Improving (infra)structure around Open Data

The question is – how to best address them? I think that Open Knowledge has delivered all the open data training sessions it was due to deliver under the open data voucher scheme, which means my occasional encounters with folk tasked with open data delivery from councils and government departments may have come to an end via that route; which is a shame, because I felt we never really got a chance to start building on those introductory sessions…

The Cabinet Office also made a state of the nation announcement to finish off the parliamentary session by announcing the Local authorities setting standards as Open Data Champions. A quick skim down the list seems to suggest that the champions are typically councils that have started their own datastore…

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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