It's Our Data: Time to Open Up

Last week I wrote about David Cameron's fine words about cancelling ID cards and generally opening up data. It was full of sound and fury, but I reserve judgement on just how much it really signified.

But here's a hopeful sign that things really might change if the Tories win power at the next general election. It's a new report from the Centre for Policy Studies. And in case you were wondering where they are on the political spectrum:

The Centre was founded by Sir Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher in 1974 to promote the principles of a free society and has since played a global role in the dissemination of free market economics. Its role in developing the policies of privatisation, low-tax government and support for the family, is recognised across the world.

Irrespective of that parentage, the report is probably the best dissection and analysis I have read of the authoritarian madness that is Labour's IT policy. Here are a few samples from the executive summary:

In 2009/10, the UK Government will spend about £16.5 billion on IT, equivalent to 1.4% of GDP. However, much IT spending is currently wasted. Only 30% of projects succeed.


A clear choice is emerging for the future of government IT:

− Either to continue with the Transformational Government agenda. This relies on the State holding, in the words of the Treasury’s adviser, a “deep truth about the citizen, based on their behaviour, experiences, beliefs, needs and rights”, with huge centralised databases directing public services to the point of need (as judged by the State).

− Or to abandon expensive and failing centralised IT projects and yield control of personal information to individual citizens. This is the approach that has been increasingly effective in the private sector.

This approach requires all public services to use open data standards to ensure that data can be easily transferred from one data provider to another in the same way that customers can today transfer their accounts from one bank to another.

This approach does not, in contrast to the Government’s agenda, require huge investment in the creation of untested and largely unnecessary new technology. It would, however, reverse the Government’s attempt to nationalise data by giving control back to those who should own it: us.

What really interests me is the contrast the report makes between the current UK government approach, and the alternative that draws on many of the ideas I have discussed in this blog. That is, between this:

The Government’s approach to IT in the public sector is based around the ideal of a benign state with perfect databases. A state that requires, according to the man behind the idea of Transformational Government, Sir David Varney: “...a ‘deep truth’ about the citizen based on their behaviour, experiences beliefs needs and rights.”

and what the report calls “Government Relationship Management”:

The features of a Government Relationship Management approach would include:

Open data standards and the integration of government IT into a more sustainable and open approach.

Data should be held by a third party chosen and trusted by the citizen, not the government.

Government systems should have access to the data where it is needed for delivery of public services but the control of the data should be the citizens’ – it is their data.

Data provision should be provided by the data hosts who can provide such services more effectively and cheaply than the government.

Parallel to the recognition that it's “our data”, and that we should be in control of it, is a new openness for that data, while still under our control. And open data matters, because it allows open source to flourish in a way it never can under the kind of authoritarianism that dominates today's thinking, as the report notes:

the evolution of open source developments and applications in schools, in hospitals and in other public service delivery units is possible through the implementation of open standards driven by personal ownership of data.

In its conclusion, the report writes:

Ever greater centralisation runs counter to the current movement towards accountable, consent-based, user-driven data administration and storage. It runs counter to public sentiment, which believes local services with local accountability are preferable to centrally imposed targets.

It also runs counter to the inherently decentralised and transparent approach of open source, which is why this philosophical statement could prove crucially important if implemented by the next Conservative government.

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Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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