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

 

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Here’s everything I learned this weekend at LibDem conference

Fear and loathing in the Bournemouth International Centre.

I spent my weekend in Bournemouth. It’s a lovely place for a weekend away, with gorgeous sandy beaches, beautiful parks and unusually good weather for an English seaside resort – but I didn’t get to enjoy any of that because I spent the weekend shut in a conference centre with a bunch of Lib Dems. Here’s what I learned from the experience.

There are people who think that EU flag berets make a stylish addition to any head

Almost the first thing to catch my eye on entering the Bournemouth International Centre was a cluster of women with EU flags on their head.

I’m not entirely clear whether there were a lot of these guys, or a small group I just happened to notice a lot because an EU flag beret is the sort of thing you’ll almost certainly be able to spot across a crowded conference hall, but either way I kept seeing them all weekend.

Vexingly, they were always women of a certain age. Do young women not love the EU? Do they not make the hats in men’s sizes? What?

Anyway.  If you want to show your support for Britain’s membership of the European Union while looking a bit like one of the mushrooms from Super Mario Bros 3, now you know how. 

You can buy laminated pictures of Tim Farron for £4.25 a throw

Something I would like to know is who exactly the market is for this particular product.

Something I would not like to know is why this product is laminated.

Vince Cable wants to bring house prices down...

The reason I was at LibDem conference at all was because the Young Liberals had wanted someone who wasn’t a politician to join their panel about intergenerational inequality and, basically, shout at everyone about housing. This is how I spend most Saturday nights anyway, so I agreed.

The thing that stays with me about that discussion was something the new(ish) party leader Vince Cable said. I’m paraphrasing, but it was along the lines of: We need to explain to homeowners that house prices have to fall.

At the time, I thought perhaps this was a comment tailored for a young and angry audience – but he said something similar when taking questions from the party at large the next day. He also said that the party needed to take on the NIMBYs that oppose house-building. 

All of which I’m quite in favour of, on the whole. Except...

... but his party night not let him

...at least some of those NIMBYs are members of his own party. One of them is the MP for Oxford West & Abingdon, Layla Moran, who was elected in June on a platform of protecting Oxford’s green belt from the housing development she says neighbouring Tory and Labour councils are threatening to build. 

During our panel debate, Moran explained that she favoured meeting Oxford’s housing need by building in neighbouring Bicester (not, as it happens, a part of her own constituency). She also argued that building on the green belt should be the “last resort”, although since the city already has the most expensive housing in Britain relative to wages it’s not clear to me what the last resort might look like if not this.

At any rate: LibDem policy is set by the members, not the leadership. And Moran will be far from the only LibDem politician who wants to protect their patch from development. For those who favour housebuilding, Cable’s support is A Good Thing – but that doesn’t mean his party will follow him on the issue. 

Political tribalism is personal

Why, I asked people in a panic whenever conversation palled, are you a LibDem? Sometimes, when people seemed particularly annoyed with the party around them, I’d instead ask: why are you still a LibDem?

One of the answers I was given stays with me, because I’d not considered it before. You might hate the leadership, the policies, the coalition. You might not know many LibDems back home. But twice a year you go off to a conference somewhere, and you spend four days with friends from all over the country who otherwise you would hardly ever see. 

Leaving the party doesn’t just mean cutting up a membership card: it means abandoning those friends. 

This, I suspect, goes some way to explain why, even when the party is very obviously in a hole, everyone in the Bournemouth International Centre this weekend was so bloody cheerful.

Shutting a couple of thousand strangers in a badly ventilated conference hall for several days is a great way to incubate all sorts of exciting diseases

I’m a man on the cusp of middle age and I’m sitting here with freshers’ flu and no free drinks parties, how the hell is this fair.

Just because you agree on Europe that doesn’t mean there’s no excuse for a fight

The Brexit debate on Sunday morning was, I was assured, going to be the fight of the conference. I’m a big fan of both pointless political rows and the European Union so I went along.

The funny thing, though, was it was a remarkably difficult fight to understand. Both sides wanted Britain to remain in the European Union, of course (they’re LibDems; they have hats). But one faction wanted to commit the party to an “exit from Brext” referendum on the final terms of Brexit, while the other just wanted to stuff the whole thing. Okay.

It further transpired that actually both sides would probably accept another referendum (either the first or the third, argued former MP Julian Huppert, depending on how you count, but definitely not the second). The argument was really about the meaning of that referendum: if that was lost, too, would the LibDems accept it and back Brexit? Well, obviously not, but in which case what was the point of supporting a referendum? Why not just be clear that you oppose the whole thing as a mess?

Moreover, LibDem policy is meant to represent what a LibDem government would do. In the event of a LibDem majority – pause here for hollow laughter – it’s probably safe to assume that the mood of the British public towards Europe will have changed so radically that we could cancel Brexit without bothering with another referendum. So is LibDem policy a guide to the policy of a majority LibDem government? Or is it a guide to what it would fight for without said government? And since nobody outside the party is likely to read the thing does it actually matter?

Just as I was getting my head around this, someone requested that conference suspend standing orders, the chair said that would be a vote on whether to have a debate about this request, someone else said that standing orders had already been suspended, everyone began muttering, and my nose began to bleed.

In the event, after a long and exhausting debate that left everyone in a terrible mood, the LibDems voted overwhelmingly to keep policy pretty much the same as it had been before. Which, ironically, is a good description of the party’s position on Brexit.

The LibDems love a good singsong

“Oh you have to go to Glee Club,” people kept telling me. “You’ve not seen LibDem conference until you’ve been to Glee Club.”

I promise that whatever you’re imagining right now, the reality is worse. 

It works like this. People rewrite the lyrics to popular songs to make them about British politics, and then a roomful of LibDems sing them like they’re hymns. Here’s a topical one about David Cameron and a pig, sung to the tune of English Country Garden:

Sadly I didn’t make it to glee club – I was back in London before the glittering night – but just so I didn’t feel left out a crowd of LibDems demonstrated the concept to me by singing several verses to the tune of American Pie outside a pub. And just for me. Lucky old me, eh!

Despite the lyric “Tony Blair should fuck off and die”, this, I’m told, actually dated to before Iraq, all the way back to talk of a Labour-LibDem pact in the mid-1990s, long before many of those singing were even involved in the party. The lyrics are printed in a book that expands every year, and you can buy your own copy. So it is that people can confidently sing along with satirical songs dating back to the 90s or beyond. Amazing scenes.

If you ever tweet anything nice about LibDem conference, they will start sending you membership forms

No.

Apart from anything else you people give me the flu.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.