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July 18, 2011 / Jo Ivens

What next for Open Data?

“Transparency is the most important policy lever we’ve got, and open data is the critical part of this”, so says Tim Kelsey, the government’s new Director of Transparency. At a Demos seminar this lunchtime the explained the vision and scope of the Government’s ambition on open data.

The Government thinks that open data will be both the trigger and the fuel for opening public services, increasing choice and accountability, and boosting economic and social growth. They’ll be publishing a Transparency Strategy in the next couple of weeks for consultation.

Themes of Accountability, Choice, Productivity & Quality in public services, and Social and Economic Growth are closely linked to those in the Open Public Service White Paper and are seen as underpinning progress on government desire to open up public service markets.

For me, and for others on the panel and in the audience, it is important to remember why we are doing this and take this into account when we’re setting about the open data journey. If this is primarily about improving efficiency and effectiveness of public services government at all levels and civil society need to consider, discuss and tackle the following issues:

  • We cannot assume that social innovation happens in the same way as commercial innovation, the resources and actors involved are often very different. Government will have an important role in stimulating social markets and this will be very different to any action they chose to take in relation to commercial markets.
  • We need to consider the capacity of ordinary people, citizens, communities to access, make sense of and use open data. Currently, the assumption is that ‘cliques of geeks’ will magically interpret this data for us and make amazing apps . Open data is not and should not be just for developers and techies – this is just as restrictive and divisive as not publishing the stuff in the first place.
  • Data needs to be published in a way that is useful and which protects peoples’ privacy, which means that some thought must be given to eventual uses and eventual users. This clearly places me firmly in the ‘think about it, do it right’ camp of the Open Data movement, as opposed to the ‘just shove it out there and people will use it’ camp. My reasons for this are not just about accessibility, but also about contributing to long term social gains by thinking wider than Boris bike apps, as handy as they may be, but being ambitious about the scale of social impact by enabling the social markets I was talking about earlier.
  • Most public services are delivered at the local level, or increasingly with personalisation, at the individual level. Central government’s commitments are welcome but let’s not pretend that this is where it ends. I do not believe the central government can or should command local government to get with the programme on this, rather that local government itself should be showing leadership.

Some of the first of these points were discussed by the rest of the panel, in particular Dan Leighton, Head of the Public Interest Programme at Demos, but little useful comment in the issue of making it local.

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