Opening up public data

The growing debate over opening up public data raises serious political and economic questions about who gains and who loses from such a process

Jo Bates
Jo Bates

Over recent years, the rules around the re-use of public sector datasets by third parties have become an increasingly contested policy issue in the UK and elsewhere. What’s more, it’s an issue that matters, or should matter, to people, even though it appears to be somewhat arcane and clouded in technicalities.  Since the mid-2000s, advocates of free and unrestricted re-use of unrefined non-personal public data have organised themselves under the banner of Open Government Data (OGD), arguing that opening up public data will allow a wide range of actors to add both commercial and non-commercial value to the data.

Behind many of the demands of civil society advocates of this position is a belief that opening up public data will empower citizens and small enterprises against the state and corporate actors, which, they argue, the incumbent data re-use arrangements have tended to favour.  These advocates often make their case for opening up public data by suggesting that this would serve as an enabler of democratic participation and civic engagement. They see it as the raw material required to fuel a new wave of digital innovations based on the growth of an interoperable ‘information commons’, and to underpin equality (rather than ability to pay) when it comes to the right to re-use this valuable public asset.

This interpretation of the power of OGD has largely caught on, with hundreds of events and news reports lately extolling the virtues of opening up public data.

And yet … there is also another – perhaps less idealised – dimension to the opening up of government data that has been less articulated within public discussions, at least in the UK. Since their first days in government, the Conservative leadership has positioned itself as a key supporter of the OGD agenda.  But its understanding of the value in opening up (some) public data differs significantly from the more transformative intentions of civil society advocates.

One important feature underpinning the coalition government’s support for OGD is its intention to use Open Data about public services to leverage what it calls the Open Public Services agenda. This is a controversial policy which aims to ‘open up’ the provision of almost all public services to competition from private and third sector providers.  These two ‘open’ agendas are linked strongly within policy documents, with statements indicating a belief that Open Data about public services will allow service users to make informed choices within a market for public services based on data-driven applications produced by a range of commercial and non-commercial developers.

It’s also likely that this Open Data will be useful for those businesses wanting to boost their intelligence on where profitable opportunities might exist in the market for public services provision, and in general for enhancing their marketing strategies in relation to public sector procurement. If this is the case, we should therefore see such a strategy as an attempt to use OGD to support a market-driven form of public sector governance, rather than to facilitate some of the more democratic changes envisaged by some other advocates.

Another area of concern around the UK government’s intentions regarding OGD relates to its enthusiasm for this data to be used to generate industry growth in the key areas of ‘homeland security, climate change, disaster management, energy and food security… [and] weather risk management’. This aim of government overlaps with the lobbying demands of sections of industry. For example, parts of the UK financial sector have been pressing for better access to UK weather data in order to compete with the US-based weather derivatives market, which, as a result of its access to openly available US meteorological data, has expanded into a multi-billion dollar market over the last decade.

This wider purpose of deepening the exploitation of social risks for private gain raises significant political economy issues, since it increases the private financial stake that powerful economic actors have in system instabilities such as climate change. And, like other cases of commercial re-use of OGD, there are questions to ask about whether – and, if so, to what extent – the state should in effect be subsidising commerce and industry through the (free) provision of such economically valuable data.

There are other drivers as well behind the government’s interest in OGD. These include a desire to generate trust from citizens through transparency and to boost the digital start-up economy (both perhaps overstated as likely outcomes of opening up public data).  However, these two examples suggest that, in order to grasp more clearly the potential political significance of OGD, we do need to have a deeper understanding of the range of political and economic interests actively shaping the domain and the whole debate about re-using public data.

In short, we may need to go back to the question of whether fully ‘open’ pubic data infrastructure and re-use ecology is, in fact, the best design for democratic and egalitarian ends.