Open data: What can we expect from the conservatives?

We have a conservative government in the UK for the next five years. I’ve been looking at open data a lot for some research that I’m doing so I wanted to cast a proper eye over their manifesto
to see what was on the cards.

I’m not the first to do this. The ODI, among others
did a good job of collating the open data related promises in the party manifestos. Charles Arthur at the Guardian covered similar ground
in his ‘technology’ reading of each parties manifesto.

But, now we know who we are dealing with over the next few years I wanted to take a look and get my thoughts down. But it worth noting what open data means. You can take two definitions and get the gist.

The Open Knowledge Foundation has a pretty precise definition
of what open data is:

“Open data and content can be freely used, modified, and shared
by anyone
for any purpose

In 2013 the G8 made explicit a commitment to open data in a charter
which stated that open data sits at the heart of a revolution in communication technology that has the:

enormous potential to create more accountable, efficient, responsive, and effective governments and businesses, and to spur economic growth.

Reading between those definitions and their extended narrative you get a sense of two distinct themes – accountability and innovation. The two don’t always play well together but often go hand-in-hand e.g. better access to government spending means more transparency. Using that data for improving public services means innovation.

It really comes down to an issue of who is using it and for what.

So, with that in mind (and now you know what’s informing my thinking) I worked my way, as others have done
, through the manifesto looking for keywords ‘data’, ‘open data’ and ‘publish’.

Let’s start with what they will publish?
:

We will require companies with more than 250 employees to publish
the difference between the average pay of their male and female employees (p19)

Interesting data but already a requirement that was part of the Small Business Bill put through in March this year. Ironically it was an amendment by the Lib Dems.

We will publish
more earnings and destination data for Further Education courses, and require more accreditation of courses by employers.(p35)

It’s tricky to unpick this one. There have been c onsultations on more data for adult learners in Further Education
and the Skills funding (SFA) had already made reporting of more data around final destinations mandatory
, although this was not for all learners. It will be interesting to see how this develops.

It’s interesting to see this on the same page as a pledge to require universities to make

more data to be openly available to potential students so that they can make decisions informed by the career paths of past graduates

There’s already a good deal of data kicking around of students perceptions of universities (see NSS
). It feels like a lighter touch than the Further Education demands but that’s not a surprise given the more commercial footing the Higher Education sector is taking (and it’s big international market).

We will publish
standards, performance data and a ranking system for the security of smartphones and tablets, as well as online financial and retail services. (p59)

This is an interesting one. This one seems to be read in the context of information security. I guess if we are going to be more data driven, we need to be more savvy about what is happening to our data. It’ll be interesting to see how this one pans out. Could we see a security rating on phones like the Euro NCAP for cars?

Of course information security concerns are often cyber crime concerns. It’s already been touted that the Conservatives see the majority as a chance to push through the ‘Snoopers Charter’.
It’s the other side of the data coin in their manifesto:

We will keep up to date the ability of the police and security services to access communications data – the ‘who, where, when and how’ of a communication, but not its content. Our new communications data legislation will strengthen our ability to disrupt terrorist plots, criminal networks and organised child grooming gangs, even as technology develops (p63)

Don’t worry though. If you live in the SW then there’s a promise of investment to support the cyber security industry there (p11). And if you a criminal, they would let the police keep more of your assets, which is how they may fund ‘Cyber Specials’
to police it all (p59).

That’s it in terms of a direct statement to ‘publish’. That doesn’t mean to say that there aren’t plans for more data and related areas.

We will boost transparency even further, ensuring you can access full information about the safety record of your hospital and other NHS or independent providers, and give patients greater choice over where and how they receive care.

Not a commitment to publish but a commitment to make full information accessible. I’m sure negotiation on what this will mean and what form it takes will be massively political. This clearly falls into the service reform agenda of open data (and government) but it could be rich pickings for those looking for a boom in the kind of health consumer apps that Nigel Shadbolt talked about in his closing keynote to the ODI summit last year.

What level of control you have over that, the private vs public vs open debate, isn’t dealt with in any depth. It’s going to be opt in and who it’s shared with…

We will give you full access to your own electronic health records, while retaining your right to opt-out of your records being shared electronically (p38)

Of course, the private provider they pick to manage the infrastructure will have had the cyber security standards checked and published.

Moving online is seen as a big part of the process of reducing government spending. But what about those people not online? Don’t worry

We will ensure digital assistance is always available for those who are not online, while rolling out cross-government technology platforms to cut costs and improve productivity – such as GOV.UK (p49)

That doesn’t mean more Barclay’s Digital Eagles
:

We will help public libraries to support local communities by providing free wifi. And we will assist them in embracing the digital age by working with them (p41)

Good job too as all the books will be going digital

We will assist them in embracing the digital age by working with them to ensure remote access to e-books, without charge and with appropriate compensation for authors that enhances the Public Lending Right scheme. (p42)

So more digital access – and an interesting (re)negotiation with publishers which, like the gender pay data seems to have happened already.

But an expectation that Libraries will need to rely on volunteers to run, as Ed Vaizey told Library professionals in a statement
:

Many libraries have also been able to attract large numbers of volunteers who are helping to run and provide services to users. It is precisely this sort of collaboration and innovation that libraries need to be considering as they look to attract more visitors and remain relevant.

Of course the solution is to make sure everyone has better access to the web (of course it is) so the government is pledging that 95% of the country will have superfast broadband access by 2017.

And who will pay for that, you will, through the licence fee?

we will continue to ‘topslice’ the licence fee for digital infrastructure to support superfast broadband across the country.

But they want more broadband power:

We will also release more spectrum from public sector use to allow greater private sector access. And we have set an ambition that ultrafast broadband should be available to nearly all UK premises as soon as practicable (p15)

Ultrafast! All good news and the release of the spectrum would seem to underpin the aim to make the UK ” a world leader in the development of 5G”. But making the spectrum more commercial without any nod to the pricing of data (key to access for many) other than, I’m assuming the implicit assumption that the market will drive prices down, seems naive.

Conclusions

There are lots of other things in there that are related but this is what stood out for me.

  • Commitments to publish data were minimal or has already been done.
  • Commitments to data sits in the service reform rather than transparency agenda
  • Data is a market driven proposition

So there’s an underpinning of the infrastructure and economic environment that will mean open data and data economies will have plenty to go at. But as a citizen, looking at a neo-liberal market approach to data for the next five years, I’m feeling in an odd place.

Years ago when the free our data
campaign asked government to give up what we had already paid for, it made sense. Now I see an economy slowly building around open data, and more specifically open government data, and I’m wondering whether I should be looking at those companies through Catapults and the like and asking a similar question.

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