Free Our Data: the blog

A Guardian Technology campaign for free public access to data about the UK and its citizens


Archive for February, 2009

Tories demand publication of Trading Funds review, back free data principles

Thursday, February 19th, 2009


photo: Paul Downey

The Conservative Party is demanding that the government publishes the Trading Funds Review, while also giving its backing to the concept of free data – although it hasn’t quite gone as far as backing the entire principles of the Free Our Data campaign.

At a debate last week hosted by the Policy Exchange (a broadly right-wing thinktank), Charles Arthur – that’s me – Steven Feldman, Ed Parsons, Shane O’Neill and – crucially – the shadow skills minister Adam Afriyie debated the idea of free data and what it could mean for government.

Perhaps one problem was that there wasn’t anyone to represent the other side of the debate. I had thought that Steven Feldman would oppose the idea – but he didn’t, and doesn’t.

But the meat of the evening was in Afriyie’s speech. Now, the Free Our Data campaign isn’t party political; the more sides back it, the more likely we are to get change.

So, to Afriyie’s speech, which he presented pretty much as it’s on the site:

The campaign to ‘free our data’ is an important one – all the more so at a time when our economy is in deep recession.

And further:

So my vision is for a more open, innovative and better connected society: a society where access to communication technology creates more powerful citizens and a less controlling state; a society where the free-flow of public information energizes entrepreneurs and social innovators.

Data will be the fuel of this new economy. And as the repository of the country’s public data, the Government already has a vital presence in the field.

A key point:

First, I turn to non-trading fund data. This is the deep well of raw data which lies unpublished, unavailable and untapped in dusty government vaults.

This includes raw data for crime maps and school league tables. It could include hospital performance statistics and patterns of carbon emissions. It might include the coordinates of every mobile phone mast, held by Ofcom, or the location of accident black spots, held by the Department for Transport.

One little point: the mobile phone mast data doesn’t actually belong to the government. It really belongs to the mobile phone companies, but I think that the government has an interest in holding it. This was one of the topics that OnOneMap brought to the fore.

Afriyie continued:

There is any number of data sets below the radar, and I’m sure members of the audience will have their own ideas. Much of it can be mashed-up and re-used, adding value for the economy and society.

And now to the crunch stuff.

Second, I turn to trading fund data. This is information which government agencies sell to generate income. The Ordnance Survey, the Met Office, the Hydrographic Office and the Land Registry are good examples.

Now let me be clear: we see nothing intrinsically wrong with asking users to pay for a service. Nor do we oppose attempts to replicate efficient, business forces within the public sector.

But we are instinctively cautious of government monopolies. And that puts us in a position to ask whether there could be a better way to generate more jobs, more wealth and more enterprise for the nation by doing things differently.

Take Ordnance Survey as an example. While there is a case for the government having responsibility for mapping the nation’s territory, with growing opportunities in the digital economy it’s not so obvious that the government should also run map shops. Conservatives do not usually take the view that retail businesses are best run by governments.

That’s an interesting point. It’s indicative of the importance and breadth of what the trading funds do that they are still owned and run by the government.

Afriyie notes that there has been plenty of studies about the benefits of free data models, including the Cambridge study and more recently the Trading Funds Assessment, carried out last summer and autumn – just as markets and banks properly went into meltdown.

But so far there have been at least five government reports. And some – like the long delayed Trading Fund Assessment – have been announced with great fanfare only to fade with a whimper.

Indeed we are now told, bizarrely, that the Trading Fund Assessment will not be published and will be treated as private advice to Ministers. There’s open government for you! But we do welcome to the Trading Fund Assessment. The situation should certainly be scrutinised. But the review should not be an excuse for kicking the issue into the long grass.

So I’m calling on the Government to publish the review, and let us have the debate.And let’s be clear: it should not be an excuse for half-hearted measures.

It is of course important to read the whole speech (this is only a few extracts from it) to get the full idea of what the Conservatives are – and aren’t – saying here. It’s a nudge in the direction of a free data model, and Afriyie’s reaction on the night seemed to indicate that he thinks it’s a good idea. But it’s a long way between the idea and the implementation. We’re not done yet.

(Paul Downey has a good summing up of the event too. It’s his picture at the top.)