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How can government support open data without doing it all itself?

Published 30 April 2015

While not the only source of open data, government can play an important wider supporting role, no matter who manages or provides the information beyond the General Election, argues Open Data Institute technical director Jeni Tennison


Government collects, maintains and provides access to a whole range of data. It manages information to aid decision making, including geospatial data, the census and crime surveys.

The day-to-day business of government also produces data, such as spending information, transport timetables or car registrations.

Ahead of next week's election, parties including the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and Labour have all included commitments to open data within their manifestos - mostly around potential use of the information and issues of public ownership.

Ten to fifteen years ago, government maintained most of the data it produces solely for its own benefit, making the information available in the minimal ways required by law, such as providing paper copies at local council offices.

Within this time we have seen several technological changes, particularly a shift in recognising the importance of data. We have also experienced social changes; we now have far higher expectations about both the transparency of government and equality of access to information for a fairer and more competitive marketplace. Now governments are expected not only to use data themselves but also to make it available for others to reuse, often as open data.

Open data by definition is data that anyone can access, use and share. Open data is a public good, like "clean air", "lighthouses" or "public parks": you can't stop anyone using open data, and it doesn't get used up when it is used.

When government collected data only for its own purposes, there was no need to fund additional activities to make that data open for others to reuse. There was a lower demand for access to information within the market, so it was arguably understandable that government charged others to access its data.

Satisfying the requirement for open data brings additional costs and prevents information holders from using traditional revenue streams. However, publishing as open data also brings opportunities for government to change its approach to maintaining information, to drive down costs and reduce the amount of open data funded through taxation.

Alternative approaches to directly funding open data include:

- Collaboratives: It is not only government that collects and maintains data. Commercial and not-for-profit organisations also hold data for their own purposes and can learn from the data collected by others in their field. Any group you care to think of -- retailers, housing associations, energy companies, social-care providers -- can benefit from having access to each others' data, as can society as a whole. Government should be both participating in and convening collaboratives with commercial and voluntary organisations that agree to maintain open data together, for everyone's benefit.

- Cross-subsidy: The primary beneficiaries of data held by government often engage in other transactions with government. Property developers need to understand the availability of land and are those who cause changes to land use records. Companies need to understand the status of other companies, and are those who need to update their own records at Companies House. Government should be using the fees that it currently charges for these transactions to subsidise publishing open data.

- Volunteering: Efforts such as Open Street Map, Wikipedia, and the various projects run by Zooniverse demonstrate that volunteer communities can create, maintain and add value to data. Government should be creating infrastructure that enables volunteer efforts to be harnessed to collect and improve data that everyone can benefit from.

- Social norms: Government can support the transition of publishing open data as standard practice in society. When data is held outside the public sector, government can encourage its release through a variety of methods. It can provide basic infrastructure, such as standard formats and reporting mechanisms, that support open data publication by other organisations. It can also pull this data together to produce summaries and reports, or even require that certain data be reported to government or to regulators, in order to shift transparency in areas such as salary equality, the use of carrier bags, or delays in payments to SMEs.

Data is becoming as essential to corporations, charities, and citizens as the road network. Government should be playing an active role in shaping and maintaining an information infrastructure that everyone can benefit from. But it does not need to do this alone. By using all the techniques available, government can provide the open data that the economy and our society needs without doing it all itself.

Jeni Tennison is technical director of the Open Data Institute

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