Gordon Brown’s stint as prime minister is over. But we can thank him for one thing he left behind: the commitment by the Treasury to fund free data from the Ordnance Survey (by my understanding, for at least five years – which I think is at least what it will take for really useful commercial applications to emerge from the availability of the data).
That’s a huge step. When Mike Cross and I started the Free Our Data campaign in March 2006, Tony Blair was prime minister. We knew that there was a strong reason for it, but it took time to get traction. Our first meeting with a minister was with Baroness (Cathy) Ashton at the Ministry of Justice; she didn’t seem too interested.
Once Gordon Brown came into office and there was a change at ministerial level, things changed dramatically. We got audiences and found ministers who were largely sympathetic. Brown too understood the idea – which simply took off when he found himself sitting beside Tim Berners-Lee at a dinner and started making conversation.
Brown asked: “What’s the most important technology right now? How should the UK make the best use of the internet?”
To which the invigorated Berners-Lee replied: “Just put all the government’s data on it.”
To his surprise, Brown simply said “OK, let’s do it.”
Now the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are in power. The Conservative manifesto contains a pledge to access to government data:
Drawing inspiration from administrations around the world which have shown that being transparent can transform the effectiveness of government, we will create a powerful new right to government data, enabling the public to request – and receive – government datasets in an open and standardised format. independent estimates suggest this could provide a £6 billion boost to the UK economy. We will open up Whitehall recruitment by publishing central government job vacancies online, saving costs and increasing transparency.
That £6bn number comes, I believe, from the Cambridge study – though that included making OS Mastermap data free. I don’t think that that will be done, given the commitment to extra public spending it would involve in the short term and the long-term payback it would need.
I also think that while it’s nice to publish central government jobs online, there will be problems in how you slice it so that people can find the jobs they want. You might find that it’ll become something that other sites – and of course businesses – will exploit as a raw data feed and sell access to, or improve. (Yes, I know it’s also a scheme which is about chopping the funding of the Guardian’s public-sector jobs supplement off at the knees; there have been elements within the Tory party which have wanted to do this for years.)
In short: the campaign continues, but the Con-Lib coalition has indicated that it has a lot of the right instincts. Once we know which ministers we need to lobby – and once they know what their viewpoints are – we’ll be pushing the campaign again. There’s still so much data in there which needs to be freed.