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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The government is abdicating responsibility for the Irish border after Brexit

The invisible border plan is full of holes and only a softer Brexit can avoid chaos.

The Government’s Brexit position paper yesterday on Northern Ireland that included its border proposals has only multiplied the number of questions that need urgent answers.

The questions people in Northern Ireland, particularly those in border communities, have asked me over the past year are in many ways similar to those I'm asked in my constituency in St Helens; what impact will Brexit have on them, their families, their jobs and businesses and their freedom of movement. But one issue looms larger than any other - the border.

These new proposals have now opened up a fresh set of questions on the border that are being asked not just by people in Northern Ireland but across Britain, Ireland and the EU too.  

The most obvious is that if you do not have checks on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland or between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, where do you carry out checks on immigration, goods and services?

The Government talks about an invisible border and using technology to make it work, proposing to have barrier-free access to the EU while negotiating free trade agreements. In that context, these ill-conceived proposals are more a reflection of a fantasy politics where the solution, not the border, is invisible. 

Based on its proposals yesterday, the Government is effectively handing back the decisions over a porous border of 310 miles and over 200 crossings to the European Union and abdicating responsibility for a mess of its own creation.

The Government paper stresses its commitment to maintaining an open border. But their relentless progress towards a hard Brexit raises a number of practical obstacles.

The first is immigration. A majority of my constituents in St Helens North and the UK as a whole voted to leave the EU in the referendum last year. I understand the fact that for many of them their main motivation was to achieve better control of immigration.

The Prime Minister herself has been very clear that her Government’s policy remains to cut annual net migration to the "tens of thousands" - a metric I believe to be artificial and flawed. But the Government’s policy on maintaining the Common Travel Area will create a gaping hole in Britain’s immigration policy.

Yesterday's proposals suggest that when we leave the EU, people wanting to come to Britain from EU countries will have to do no more than to book a flight to Dublin, take the bus to Belfast, and then cross the Irish Sea to enter Great Britain - with no checks at any point.

Far from taking back control of its borders as it claimed, the Government will be giving it away. Far from making our borders more secure, the loss of our place in the Single Market will open up a new route to illegal immigration and people traffickers. This is not what my constituents, or anyone else, voted for in the referendum.

At present, around 35,000 people cross the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic every day to work, study, visit relatives and do business. Over 200 crossing points handle 177,000 lorries, 208,000 vans and 1.85m cars per month.

Any immigration checks on the border whatsoever would be a practical nightmare. They would also be a collective psychological nightmare for people living in proximity to the border on both sides, erecting barriers between people - families and friends - in the North and South and potentially reopening divisions of the past.

This is the appalling Catch 22 the Government has placed itself in. Their position paper contains no evidence that they have a clue how to solve the problems they have created.

On customs, there is currently no barrier whatsoever to exporting and importing goods across the border. Huge numbers of firms rely on this frictionless cross-border trade. However, the Government’s plan raises the prospect that new controls will come into place, introducing additional cost and bureaucracy for companies and hitting the economy.

While they are trying to reassure small firms in particular that this will not be the case, it is inconceivable that Britain could leave the EU’s Customs Union and not impose customs checks.

Besides, Ireland is a member of the EU. Any deal cannot simply be arranged bilaterally between London and Dublin. It will need to apply to all the other EU nations.

The Government is casting around for a workable solution to the problems Brexit presents for Northern Ireland. But the easiest and most obvious answer is staring them in the face.

If Britain stayed within the Customs Union or the Single Market, the Common Travel Area would be mucheasier to maintain, and customs checks of any kind would not be required. To truly rule out a return to the borders of the past, the Government needs to swallow its pride and drop its commitment to a hard, destructive Brexit.

Theresa May made a huge strategic error in caving in to the Tory right-wing by ruling out a customs union or membership of the Single Market. She could have worked with EU partners who also have concerns about freedom of movement and want reform to get a good deal on good terms for Britain.

She has squandered goodwill in Europe and united the other 27 EU nations around a harder position against the UK.  The lack of a viable answer to the pressing questions over the Irish border is just the start of what I fear will be a very painful road ahead.

Conor McGinn is Labour MP for St Helens North.and a supporter of the Open Britain group.