Opening up government

Jeni Tennison, technical director of the Open Data Institute, discusses progress on releasing data, how it feeds into wider Whitehall technology reform and why companies should follow the government's lead.

It’s three years since the launch of and we now have access to datasets covering topics as diverse as HS2, broadband and GP prescriptions. The UK has won many plaudits as a result and is often touted as a world leader in the field of open data.

Time then, perhaps, to give some credit to the people behind these achievements, one of whom is Jeni Tennison.

Tennison has a number of roles: primarily as technical director of the Open Data Institute, but she also sits on the Cabinet Office’s Open Data User Group (ODUG) and the Government Digital Service’s Open Standards Board, to name but a couple.

Tennison agrees that major progress has been made. She says:

We’re getting to a stage now in the UK where, happily, a lot of data that can easily be released has already been published.

However, she is far from complacent. Tennison says, “The challenges are around data that is still being made available for money, where a business case has to be made to demonstrate that there is wider economic benefit against the short-term cost of losing that revenue. There are also challenges around the formats in which information is made available and the regularity and guarantees around that data.”

She explains that a key part of ODUG’s work is representing user requirements for data into government and helping to prioritise datasets for release.

Tennison adds, “It’s just trying to unpick those requirements and represent them into government. Obviously we’ve also had campaigns that ODUG has run around open address information, and ongoing discussions with Ordnance Survey over its licensing terms for example.

“So basically ODUG is a campaigning body that’s close to government and that tries to represent the need for data, spanning a broad range of different interests including big businesses, small businesses and civil society.”

Privacy trade-offs

Regarding concerns raised about open data, particularly around security and privacy, Tennison explains, “I think that you'll find that within the open data community there is a very strong recognition of the need to protect privacy but it’s more complicated than baldly saying 'open data is not personal data'. There are grey areas where personal information needs to be anonymised or aggregated in order to provide the benefits of openness without intruding on people's lives.

“And we're doing that very slowly, very gradually and are very much aware of the risks. The worst thing that could possibly happen for the open data community would be for some personal data to be released under the open data agenda because it would set it back. So it's not in anyone's interest. It's something we feel very strongly about in fact.”

She adds, “It's not 'everything should be out there', it's much more 'what data can we best make use of', and where are the trade-offs?”

As an example of these concerns in practice, Tennison points to a recent HM Revenue & Customs consultation about the VAT register, which contains information on businesses.

However, she explains:

A large proportion of businesses in the VAT register, especially if they aren't in Companies House already, will be named individuals as sole traders. So there is personal information within the register, certainly personally identifiable information.

On the other hand there's a big transparency and open data story about being able to get VAT registration information because it helps you to tie up all of the spending that local government does and central government does with particular companies. So there are lots of benefits economically, and in terms of service delivery and transparency, of making that information available. But then you have this personal data. So you have to balance these up.

And the argument that we made in response to that was that there was a subset of fields that didn't reveal too much but provided enough information to be useful for the 80% of things that didn't need all of this information to be made available. And so, just opening that up would be sufficient to address most of the requirements. It doesn't address all of them but in this case that was the right place to draw the line.

Tennison suggests that organisations follow ICO (Information Commissioner’s Office) advice, which says “it’s open by default, but if you have personal information in your data then you should conduct a Privacy Impact Assessment: you consult with any stakeholders that would be affected by revealing this information, and you do a considered analysis of what the impact will be of releasing that data.

“And when you've done that considered analysis then you may find there are certain bits that shouldn't be released, other bits that can be released, and it allows you to make those trade-offs in a risk-assessment-like process.”

Expanding the audience

Tennison says that one of her worries is about trying to explain what open data means for the general public. She says, “People often don’t know they want open data until they need it, for example about their local schools and hospitals.”

“Certainly one of the things that we concentrate really strongly on at the ODI is trying to expand the set of people that think about and understand what open data is and what it means beyond the existing open data community and the geeks. And the kind of technique that we're using at the moment is lots of storiesto try to bring home how open data enables new things to happen.”

Tennison is also keen to expand an open data ethos throughout Whitehall. She regularly visits the Government Digital Service (GDS) for meetings of the Open Standards Board, but recently did a presentation during one of their monthly meetings.

She says, “The pitch that I made to GDS was that open data should be very much at the heart of what they are doing, and they get that. It’s been very hard for them because they’ve had to focus on getting GOV.UK running, getting the government departments in, and now getting the public sector agencies in too.

“They are starting now, really excitingly, to look more at how they make data available as open data and to build that into their thinking. GDS should be one of the greatest beneficiaries of open data from the public sector because they should be able to build any open data that is available into their own services and the transactions that they are supporting.

“And so I’d really like GDS to be making a stronger stand around asking for the data that they need to be made available as open data by departments. To be asking for that themselves. They’re beginning to do some really great things. They are starting to build in micro APIs to the GOV.UK back end, so if you’re building an application that depends on the VAT rate, you can have the API call that goes and gets whatever the current VAT rate is and uses that.

“That’s always been what they intended to do at GDS: making it wholesale, enabling other people to build in services and data that they’re making available. So it’s really good to see them starting to move in that direction and I’m expecting great things from them.”

Making government more open

Tennison explains that ‘opening up’ technology is crucial if the government is to succeed in its plans to reform technology and break away from a reliance on a small pool of suppliers.

She says, “What I think is really interesting here is how open source, open standards and open data all come together to support the same agenda. Government doesn’t want to be locked into massive IT contracts with a small set of suppliers. “Open" helps because when you have open data being published then you have a level playing field about what people know. When you have open standards being used then you have a level playing field about what tools can be used. And when you have open source established you have a level playing field about really just getting started with using that data and using those standards.

“We’re not going to see the effect [of the reforms] until the big contracts start coming to an end, but they are laying the ground work. We can’t think that it’s job done. If you look at Dun& Bradstreet identifiers and the ACORN classification, you get those being built into IT systems and that forces a reliance on one supplier. These things have been built into the heart of some of the IT systems and processes and metrics and everything that is being used within government in order to make decisions. You’re completely locked in.

“And the other thing that you have to be extremely careful about within government is ‘open-washing’ that sometimes goes on. So, for example, you will get an API that is described as an ‘open API’ where in fact it doesn’t mean that the data is open data or using an open standard. The underlying standard that is used is open but the actual language, the vocabulary itself, is developed by one company and only one company uses it.

“So there are lots of things to be careful of. And of course it’s completely understandable that it’s in a company’s interest to try and keep people locked into using them and they’re going to keep on trying to get people locked into using them, because that’s what companies do. The government initiatives around open source, open standards and open data are so important because it’s only those that push back. It’s only those that enable you to stop that kind of thing from happening.”

Moving beyond the public sector

Regarding the ODI’s future, Tennison says, “A really important role that ODI will have over the next few years is about moving the open data community outside the government data space. Because although government holds a lot of data, so do companies. And so do third sector organisations, like charities and not-for-profits.

“In just the same way you have websites for all kinds of organisations, we should be thinking about how we have open data for all kinds of organisations and how publishing open data can benefit every kind of organisation. So the most heartening thing to me about the way that it looks like the ODI will work in future is our partnerships with companies who are not just thinking about consuming open data but actually publishing open data themselves.

“And they’re doing that for a number of reasons: for transparency, for innovation, in order to communicate better with their partners and peers, and for regulation reasons. There’s a whole range of reasons why companies should open data, and to me that’s the untapped space.”

She adds, “In some ways some companies are able to move much quicker than government. I think it’s going to be very interesting to see if we can actually accelerate the amount of open data that’s available by moving into corporate open data.”

However, she says, “Pre-GDS, government transactional services had been very much behind the private sector which has pushed ahead. In the open data arena it’s actually government that’s ahead. Government has really led the way and pushed innovation.”

This article originally appeared on

What data can we best make use of - and where are the trade-offs? Photograph: Getty Images.

Charlotte Jee is a Reporter at Government Computing


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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.