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 data.gov.uk 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 governmentcomputing.com

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

 

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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