My Open Data Consultation Response

This is my response to the UK Government’s Open Data Consultation, which I submitted via email today.

Although I wanted to respond earlier, I’m glad I waited, as my experience assisting (or at least trying to assist) with data gathering for Gail Knight’s Great British Toilet Map has been pretty instrumental in shaping my views.

Of the three London boroughs I put my query to, one (to their credit) explained that they didn’t hold data on such a thing, another required a legal approval process for re-use which still leaves me with some doubt on the terms under which I can re-use the information, and another for my local borough sadly seems stuck in an ongoing FoI request.

This is the sad reality of open public data in the UK today, that most of it is not open and with large swathes of ignorance among the very people who are the biggest stake holders in all of this – those people who work for local Government.

So here’s my response below – if you have any interest at all in this field or at least an understanding of the benefits that open data will bring, I’d urge you to submit something yourself before the consultation closes at midnight tonight.


I am an independent software developer and open data advocate and have been actively involved in a number of collaborative projects aiming to bring the benefits of free and open data to a wider portion of society.

Most recently I have been involved in the Great British Toilet Map a project which seeks to provide a single map of all public conveniences in the United Kingdom. This has involved me making requests for open data from a number of London Borough Councils, a process which I have found extremely difficult and only partly successful despite the trivial nature and very low volume of the data concerned.

In light of this experience I am supportive of the idea that a “right to data” is helpful for citizens, developers, entrepreneurs and ultimately our wider economy and societal well-being. My experience to date has been of public sector organisations with little or no knowledge at all of this important new area of information governance, and with few resources and little inclination to assist those of us who are currently trying, despite the substantial barriers, to develop innovative services which not only create value in themselves but also expose the ‘bottlenecks’ within our public sector. This is a win-win scenario for all parties concerned.

Clearly, there is work to be done to improve this situation. Although I believe education of public sector organisations and those acting on their behalf will help to address the lack of knowledge, I believe immediate and concrete action is needed from Central Government, which also needs to do more to ‘lead from the front’. I hope to provide some further views on what shape this action may take in the detailed response which follows.

How we might enhance a “right to data”, establishing stronger rights for individuals, businesses and other actors to obtain data from public bodies and about public services

A right to data is of vital importance to establishing a vibrant open data ecosystem in the United Kingdom and the associated economic benefits that numerous studies have shown this will bring.

Since such a large volume of data is held at both a national and regional level relating to public services, by public bodies, it is vital that such a right to data applies to all bodies providing services to the public utilising public money, in full or in part.

However such rights must fit in with the current Freedom of Information (FoI) landscape and in particular the Reuse of Public Sector Information (PSI) guidelines which govern how this information may re-used. These alone are not sufficient to provide a “right to data” but does provide a useful and similar example which has been generally successful in its implementation.

Existing FoI legislation provides the broad availability of information to individuals, businesses and other actors and this is also a key requirement for a right to data. However FoI does not adequately address other concerns connected with requesting open data from public bodies. In particular,

  • FoI does not encourage the re-use of released information, and in fact most organisations prohibit this without explicit and additional approval. This often in my experience requires a legal review which introduces unnecessary delays and costs. Under a right to data requesters should be granted the ability to re-use the data by default, rather than as an exception. The re-use should not require disclosure of the purposes of the re-use or the intent of the requester, instead the information should be explicitly granted under a standard licence such as the Open Government Licence (OGL). Requesters should have the right to request release under an alternative open licence if required.
  • Most often data supplied under FoI is derived data delivered in unstructured formats, even where this exists in a structured form within the organisation. A right to data should shift the focus to providing the full and raw information, with the exception of any personal data that falls under the scope of the existing Data Protection Act. There should be a presumption in favour of publishing the full raw data unless it can clearly be shown that this is not possible (see below).
  • It is not always made clear what related data is held by the organisation, or where information has been not included in the response. Organisations should publish an open list of the data held by them internally, for what purposes, and who has access to each system, in order to allow requesters to place suitable requests in the first place.

Although the structures provided by FoI are helpful in allowing citizens access to public data, the limitations above mean that is currently a rather blunt instrument for requesting open data from organisations. The Government must therefore strongly consider bringing forward additional primary legislation with the view of setting up a similar framework for open data, or modifying the existing framework to overcome these deficiencies.

How to set transparency standards that enforce this right to data

Transparency is an end goal of the greater openness which a right to data seeks to deliver. Organisations should understand their responsibilities and duties around transparency, but a greater level of openness should also be seen as a way to deliver increased involvement of citizens around public issues, and greater levels of engagement with the bodies themselves.

Although openness itself is difficult to measure, qualitative measurements of external engagement levels and of transparency in decision making should be used to provide comparisons between organisations.

Within local government although excellent levels of transparency and accountability often exist at the executive level, less is to be found at the departmental level below that, and therefore this should be particular focal point for comparisons.

How public bodies and providers of public services might be held to account for delivering Open Data

The Information Commissioner Office (ICO) guidance provides a useful model for dispute resolution in FoI requests. The process could be similar for the new right to data, providing an option for requesters to request an internal review if they are unhappy with the handling of a particular case, followed by an external review by the ICO should this not be sufficient to resolve the situation.

Although a new body could be considered to police the system and hold organisations to account, the ICO has a great deal of experience in this area already and may prove a more effective – and cost effective – solution.

Penalties should be applicable for organisations which consistently fail to deliver on their expectations, but the design of these penalties should ensure that money is not taken away from the field of open data. For instance, if it is deemed that a financial penalty is appropriate, this money should be channelled into a central fund for other open data projects in the public sector.

How we might ensure collection and publication of the most useful data

Sites such as act as a useful focus point for coordinating the release of new open data. The Requests section in particular offers a way of gauging which data sets have the most interest around them, but the current implementation contains too large a number of requests, many duplicated, and requires more active management. The ability of users to vote on other requests is key in determining the level of interest, but there is no requirement on the Cabinet Office to respond to requests when they reach a certain level of interest and more generally it is not clear how this list translates into action. This should be rectified immediately.

Although some data may be published pro-actively by organisations on sites such as, this alone is not sufficient, and therefore the focus must be in giving citizens themselves the right to request any information held by any public-financed organisation as open data.

Since my experience has shown that many organisations today are not sufficiently enlightened in this field, it is necessary to examine the reasons why requests made under a “right to data” could be refused, and to mitigate against these.

Not all public data will be possible to publish in an open and machine-readable format. It may be that data exists in legacy systems which have not been designed with an open export format in mind.

However this alone should not be a sufficient reason for organisations to refuse requests. It may be possible that even where the organisation lacks the expertise or the budget to produce the raw data exports requires, that this expertise exists in other companies or organisations. Indeed, this could be used to stimulate activity in the SME IT sector if the work were offered through a public tender. Voluntary groups may also be interested in helping in situations where the commercial sector is unable to meet the challenge, and their costs could be met through a central fund where funding streams within the organisation are not available.

Only when it can be demonstrated that an organisation has done all it can to extract information from its internal systems itself and that it has also seeked external input and failed to come up with a solution, that alternatives to the original source data should be evaluated, or – where no alternatives are available – that the original request should be refused. Even in those circumstances, it should be possible for the requester to request a review of the decision should any of the circumstances change in the future (e.g. a change in IT systems).

Organisations also have a responsibility when procuring new IT systems to ensure that data is stored in open formats, or at the very least, can be exported in open formats in real time. Organisations should be accountable for this and should be able to demonstrate as part of the public tender process that they have taken this requirement into account for all new systems.

How we might make the internal workings of government and the public sector more open

Greater transparency must be recognised up-front as a key driver of the proposed “right to data”, to ensure that taxpayers are receiving best value for money and that officials are held accountable. Progress on this front should be actively monitored by central government and additional steps taken where necessary to ensure that periodic goals set by Government are met. Timelines for action should be published to allow citizens to further hold those in this oversight role to account.

How far there is a role for government to stimulate enterprise and market making in the use of Open Data

The Government and other public bodies under its control have a clear responsibility to make all public data openly available as the default option. It should not attempt to influence the open data ecosystem which remains at an early stage of development and shows considerable promise that it will develop as a world-leader in the field.

However, Government has a role to play in ensuring that the data itself is made freely available and should prioritise the release of the ‘base’ data which it holds such as mapping and weather information, which is required in order to give context to the majority of the other data sets published.

Lastly, the government can help in the longer term by encouraging the use of open standards by data publishers and in providing more general education and best practice to them.


Maidenhead, Queen of Shops

As I walked up the High Street in Maidenhead today I was pleasantly impressed to see a small market there, with a greengrocers, deli and crafts stall. It seems to be a growing trend, with a number of Welsh towns reviving or extending their on-street markets.

Among the stalls was an information stand, giving out leaflets (scanned copy of the one I picked up) and information on the new Kings Triangle development, which is being promoted as the solution to the town centre’s current woes.

The improvements are long overdue. Despite being the main pedestrian corridor linking the train station to the town centre the space is currently occupied by a mix of fast food outlets, chain pubs, low-rise offices, the monstrous Broadway multi-storey car park and a load of derelict land.

But as James Farquharson points out in a considered response on his blog today, the plans in their current form are based on the crucial assumption that retail development will provide a panacea to town centre decline, and at a time when analysts predict a continued retail slump for many years to come.

What I noticed, looking at the glossy leaflet, was the new shopping streets on the plan. Besides Debenhams, I wonder who will occupy the new spaces. Perhaps existing businesses will move in from other parts of the town centre, but in that case the development is merely shifting the problem from one place to another.

With the existing commercial centre around the High Street already having a number of vacant premises, a lot of new businesses will be needed not only to fill those but the new premises too. That would mean drawing in a large number of new visitors to Maidenhead, and with Reading, Wycombe and London providing plentiful competition, one wonders to what extent this is possible in reality.

The remarkable thing about all these towns (possibly London aside) is the degree to which they compete with each other, each trying to out-do the others in the quest for growth and economic expansion, but contributing little in architectural merit or in any general character. The same is true of my local area in Ealing, with various developments (some approved, some not) constantly being touted as the magic pill that will stop people heading to Westfield (15 minutes away on the tube) to do their shopping. We’ll see.

As James points out, something else is needed. Ealing at least has a number of green and open spaces at it’s centre which act as a hub for entertainment events, draw people in and above all create a unique sense of community. Maidenhead, sadly, has few of these, and those that it does have are mainly out of the way, separated off from the rest of the town by the almost impassable A4 bypass. Like the Broadway car park, another great 1960s planning failure.

So, back to my starting point. Street markets are on the up, and provide a great way for the entrepreneurial outfits that the Government is trying to encourage to generate revenue, without the long-term commitments of leasing premises and paying business rates. What better way to encourage this at a local level than to create a new space in Maidenhead, a single open space where Maidenhead can define it’s own unique social, cultural and of course commercial heart.

The alternative is a web of near-identical shopping streets, occupied by the usual mix of mobile phone stores, discount stores, fast food outlets and charity shops. With perhaps the odd tree, bit of grass or market stall for decoration. If we’re going to continue on down this route on new developments like this – when more effective and sustainable alternatives exist – then Mary Portis will have her work cut out.

Thanks to Mike Hatfield for pointing out James’s blog post.

Net Neutrality

I was horrified enough at Ed Vaisey’s terrible sentiments he expressed over Net Neutrality last week, to write to my MP on the issue. Hopefully Angie will be more responsive to letters from constituents than my last MP was. Still waiting for a reply on that one…

The letter’s based on Open Rights Group’s template, but I added my own Tory-friendly additions in bold. Sending a generic letter is better than none at all, but given you’re writing to an individual it’s clearly better to tailor the argument for them.

I’d strongly encourage you to do the same if you care about universal access to information.

Dear Ms Bray,

I am writing to ask you to sign the Net Neutrality EDM 1036 first signed by Tom Watson MP, Julian Huppert MP and Peter Bottomley MP.

Today the Coalition Government has taken a huge step towards increasing the transparency of Government by announcing the release of all central government spending data over £25,000 for the first time. You may have seen that the Prime Minister has stressed his support for this drive via a video posted this morning on the Number 10 web site.

This is a significant move which will help reduce the waste inherited from Labour and help drive the growth of an information industry which Francis Maude estimates could contribute up to £6bn to the UK economy. The work which his department has done over the last six months is making the UK a world leader in this field.

Last week however, Ed Vaizey, the Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, stated that the UK will allow Internet Service Providers to decide which websites and services can reach their customers at what speed.

This threatens the idea of free access to information to all. If traffic from established media operators is prioritised above others then this threatens the ability of independent organisations to help government find where inefficiencies exist in the system, using open data. It promotes centralism over localism and diversity in our information instructure and is a backwards step in Britain’s development.

The change – often called removing “net neutrality” or introducing ”network discrimination” has already led to complaints from companies including the BBC and Skype, an Internet telephone company, that their content may be slowed down by Internet Services Providers. ISPs, including BT, Sky and Virgin, provide TV and phone services which would give them a reason slowing down certain Internet services provided by competitors.

The danger is that, while some “traffic management” to prevent congestion may be reasonable, allowing ISPs to do what they want, with no checks other “transparency” to customers, will lead to significant market abuse and loss of innovation on the Internet. New services may not start up if they cannot be guaranteed fair access to UK Internet customers.

There are ways this problem could be prevented. One would be an industry agreement by major ISPs not to discriminate against competitors, such as has been put in place in Norway. Another would be to require “minimum service guarantees” including an Open Internet.

Please sign the EDM, and raise this issue with Ed Vaizey, as the Minister responsible.

Will Abson

Seven Days to Stop the Bill

My second letter, with hyperlinks. Please feel free to use this as a template to contact your own MPs.

Dear Mr Sharma,

I wrote to you recently outlining my concerns around the Digital Economy Bill currently before parliament.

You may be aware that Harriet Harman MP announced last week that despite widespread criticism of some parts of this bill from across the creative and technology sectors, it will receive it’s second reading on Tuesday April 6, leaving only 90 minutes for the bill to be scrutinised by the House of Commons.

I hope you will agree that this is not acceptable for a Bill that seeks to define the technological landscape of Britain for the next generation. The Bill has undergone considerable scrutiny in the House of Lords and it is only reasonable to expect this same scrutiny from our elected representatives in the Commons.

I see from your web site that you have welcomed Ms Harman to the constituency on more than one occasion. I would therefore ask you to use your influence as the member for Ealing Southall to oppose the Government’s plans to rush through this Bill in the period before the election and that ensure the provisions receive proper debate and scrutiny in a new Parliament.

I am writing as one of 17,000 people who have also written to their representatives on this matter. I am sure you will have received many letters on this subject and I would ask you to take these views into account and make these known with ministers and party managers.

Yours Sincerely,
Will Abson

Building Britain’s Analogue Future

I tried to catch up on Gordon Brown’s surprise appearance today on exclaiming the virtues of ‘superfast’ broadband and the semantic web, but sadly I was disappointed.

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Reading the transcript, perhaps I needn’t have bothered anyway. Aside from the release of the DfT NaPTAN data (which was made available to OSM some time ago) via, and a promise to force transport operators to open up their timetabling information when their franchises come up (every 10-20 years) there wasn’t much news on the open data front.

Further justification for releasing data in this way probably wasn’t needed to convince most of the audience, but to illustrate how open data can be used to push the boundaries of innovation, Brown picked a New Labour favourite.

…Independent developers are using the information we’ve published for innovative new websites and mobile phone applications such as ‘asborometer’ – built by one person in just five days. It finds your position using GPS and tells you how many people have been served with an asbo in that area.

ASBOs? Seriously? Surely there must be better examples out there of how citizens have re-used public data to increase transparency, accountability and participation in government?

There was an announcement that @timberners_lee and @Nigel_Shadbolt will he heading up a new institute to study emerging web technologies, although no explanation of why our universities aren’t able to do this themselves (lack of funds, perhaps?). Also a new Digital Public Services Unit is being formed to advise departments on how to ‘transform’ their services for the web, with @Marthalanefox at the helm. Fortunately for her, she gets to keep the word ‘Champion’ in her job title.

The Digital Economy Bill was mentioned only once, in a section defending the 50p phone line tax and emphasising the importance of maintaining a strong regulatory presence in the form of Ofcom, the two parts of the bill most opposed by the Tories. So more electioneering than setting out a future policy vision.

There was no mention of the crippling effect of Clauses 17 and 18 of the bill, which threaten to cut off users and censor free speech on the Internet. The Government can invest as much as it likes in Public Services 2.0, but if individuals, families and businesses are unable to access them because their connection has been blocked then that investment is effectively useless.

So if like the Labour government of the past, you believe that digital inclusion is more important than the BPI increasing album sales in 2011, write to your MP, contact your local paper or make your voice heard at this Wednesday’s protest.


My Digital Economy Letter

Turning into a political week, this one. With the Digital Economy Bill threatening to to take us back to an analogue age (oh, the irony), I’ve penned a letter to my MP highlighting the widely-held concerns that the Government look set to try to ram the thing through during wash-up.

If you’re reading this and you wish to continue using an open Internet where freedom of speech is not threatened, I would strongly urge you to do the same.

Virendra Sharma MP
Ealing, Southall

Friday 19 March 2010

Dear Mr Sharma,

I am writing to you concerning the Government’s Digital Economy Bill, which had it’s first reading in the House of Commons this week.

I have been following the passage of this Bill as it has progressed through its various stages in the Lords, and as a technologist myself I am mindful of the significance of the Bill in it’s potential to improve the way in which Britain uses information technology to it’s best advantage in an increasingly global and competitive age.

Like many others who work in the profession however, I have been alarmed by some of the clauses in the Bill, which seek to impose penalties on Internet users who are alleged to have engaged in copyright-infringing activities, with no legal recourse or right of appeal through the courts. This is especially concerning as recent cases in the news have highlighted the inaccuracy of methods used to identify wrongdoers.

Although there are many legitimate concerns around issues such as copyright and intellectual property which the Bill rightly seeks to address, in it’s current form the Bill risks damaging our economy by imposing unnecessary additional monitoring burdens on organisations as diverse as hotels, libraries and universities who provide Internet access, as well as the Internet Service Providers themselves.

As the member for Ealing Southall I hope you will appreciate the deep divide in access to technology that exists within our constituency. The Government has declared it’s intention to tackle such inequalities, but many of the provisions of the Digital Economy Bill will only hinder this, by increasing the cost of Internet access for families as ISPs seek to recoup the costs of monitoring users’ on-line activities, and others choose to stop providing public access altogether.

Further debate and scrutiny of the bill is required within Parliament to ensure that innocent families are not targeted or feel threatened by a flawed identification process, and that the cost of accessing information technology is not driven up unnecessarily in the current economic climate.

I would urge you to resist efforts by the Government to rush through this legislation before the General Election without the full oversight and scrutiny of the normal Parliamentary process, and in particular to vote against Clauses 17 and 18, which threaten to take us backwards, rather than forwards in our use of technology to improve the lives of local people.

Yours Sincerely,
Will Abson

Can Sweden teach us a lesson?

Interesting report on last night’s Newsnight over Tory “dreams” to bring a Swedish-style schools system to the UK, with independent groups receiving funding to operate within the state sector to increase competition and choice.

Radio 4 covered the same topic recently, interviewing actor Toby Young about why he wants to set up a new school here in Ealing. According to Young,

“Our parent group, which is about 250-strong, would apply to be the main sponsor of a new academy… Ours would be the first parent-sponsored academy.”

Doing a bit more digging, it seems Young kicked things off last year with an opinion piece in the Observer. The Ealing Gazette picked this up shortly afterwards and put a local twist on it and more recently, the Guardian and Newsnight re-opened the debate with their own further coverage on the subject.

Labour have taken us so far down the academies route, and (perhaps surprisingly) the juggernaut shows no sign of stopping.

But this is a scheme dreamt up in the heady days of the boom years. Underlying the academies scheme is a belief that the state (in combination with suitably wealthy donors) can play a central role in tearing down the old and replacing it with shiny new facilities, with scant regard for what is there already. Academies have done for the education system what the 1960s did for urban planning, to the extent that bodies like English Heritage now feel compelled to issue warnings.

In Education as in IT, the days of the all-enabling state are well-and-truly over. People have lost patience and the system has run out of money.

As Young’s example shows there are a huge number of people on the ground who think they can do it better and are motivated to do so. These are parents, teachers and others in the community who want to take back some of the control that’s been taken away from them over the last 60 years, first by central government and the LEAs and more recently by the academies. As Antony Seldon says in the Radio 4 piece:

“We’ve had a pretty state-run system for the last 100 years where schools have been run from the centre… and parents have been marched off to go to this school and it’s been pretty ordinary… We need to abandon the factory schools that served us so well in the 20th century and move towards a much more individualised system…”

The Newsnight report shows that the Swedish example is not perfect. Standards must be enforced (this being an ideal  role for the state) and non-profit status should be required for any organisation wanting to set up a new school, but bearing these in mind we can surely do things better by opening the process up further and allowing “individuals and organisations to flourish”.

Taxi for Galloway

The Guardian have a good article on George Galloway’s ejection from the Big Brother house last night, which made me laugh on the bus in to work this morning. Sadly, the online version of the related article about the Telegraph losing their libel appeal yesterday doesn’t have the photo of the fantastic “Taxi for Galloway” placard that appears on page 9 of today’s paper. This made me laugh even more.

As the article points out, Galloway’s interview with Davina last night was indeed very painful to watch. Throughout, he looked dumbstruck whilst he struggled to answer the questions that the lovely Davina (“…whose on-screen persona is that of a largely well-meaning friend who cannot quite conceal the fact that she thinks you are ridiculous.”) kept on hurling at him.

His answer to Davina’s question over why he thought he’d been evicted demonstrated particularly well how oblivious he seemed to the public’s mood (“Maybe people wanted me back out and on the road, travelling the country”). If he wants to stand any chance of keeping his seat now that he’s out, I think the only road he should be out travelling on is Bethnal Green Road. The Telegraph may have lost out, but there’s plenty of other vultures circling.