Comments for Guardian article on appointment of Mike Bracken as UK’s Chief Data Officer

Post: 24 April 2015

There’s an excellent new article by Marc Ambasna-Jones on the Guardian website: Does the UK need a chief data officer? It includes some quotes from me on aspects related to open data.

Following are the full comments I gave Marc:

Q. It’s too late to reclaim the Post Office data but what datasets should we be ring fencing to ensure it doesn’t happen again? Land Registry? Care.Data?

It isn’t too late to reclaim the Post Office data (assuming you mean the Postcode Address File). Yes, PAF is a Royal Mail product and Royal Mail has been privatised. However Royal Mail is dependent on underlying data from local authorities to maintain the quality of PAF. Government could reform (or renegotiate) the terms of the GeoPlace partnership to allow open release of local authority address data, which would effectively undercut Royal Mail’s monopoly position. Or if the Government had sufficient political will it could simply legislate to make PAF an open public register.

I don’t think it’s useful to identify particular datasets that we should ring-fence to protect them from privatisation. In my view all public data assets should remain in public ownership, and the terms of any future privatisations should reflect that. However some datasets are more important and more vulnerable to privatisation than others, of course. Land Registry data is certainly near the top, along with other assets held by the data-rich Public Data Group trading funds. We should also be careful to protect sources of environmental and geological data, i.e. assets held by Defra, Environment Agency and BGS.

Care.Data is different; as health data of individuals is personal, it has little potential for open public re-use. The concern around Care.Data is the extent to which it should be shared with third-party commercial entities such as pharmaceutical companies and insurers. That data sharing concern would be much the same whether the data was “owned” by the public or private sector. My own view is that commercial sharing of Care.Data should be strictly limited, and that Government should be transparent about which companies have access and for what purposes.

Q. What should the next Govt do to ensure public data remains public and privacy is not compromised?

Assuming the next Government isn’t gung-ho for privatisation, there are a couple of measures it could take to safeguard public ownership of public data. The first is to identify a core set of broadly-defined nationally important datasets, and then legislate to ensure their ongoing maintenance and availability to the public (as open data). The current Government has been very reluctant to give the open data agenda any kind of legislative underpinning (which creates the ongoing risk than any progress we have made might evaporate once ministers lose interest). The second measure is to commit to a process of public consultation whenever a government department wants to stop collecting or maintaining a significant dataset. Under the current Government many sources of useful data have disappeared as the result of cuts to public spending or of initiatives ostensibly designed to reduce “red tape” and “information burdens”. A proper consultation process would at least ensure Government has a full view of the consequences of withdrawing public data sources.

Privacy (and data protection) is a huge area and it’s difficult to say anything that’s both brief and meaningful. However ideally I would like to see the next Government take a stronger line in support of data protection legislation, particularly in Europe. The current Government’s negotiating stance has been to erode data protections whenever possible. Government should also think about strengthening the powers of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to investigate and penalise data privacy breaches. It may be time to reform the ICO structure itself. ICO is currently underfunded and has too many responsibilities; Government should consider creating separate regulators for data protection and access to information, and giving them greater independence from government.

Q. Do we need the role of Chief Data Officer? Do we need a Minister too perhaps? Does the current remit go far enough?

I am not convinced we need a Chief Data Officer. And the fact that Cabinet Office has created this as an additional role for Mike Bracken, rather than bringing in someone new, suggests ministers and/or the civil service may not be completely sure either. (But the Americans have a CDO so we have to have one too, at least on paper.)

A Minister for Data would be even more pointless. It might raise the political profile of data within central government, but that isn’t really what we need. The best work on opening up public information over the past several years has been done within departments and agencies acting mainly on their own initiative. DfT, Health and the ONS are good examples. Cross-government policy, lead by Cabinet Office, has been less effective. GDS’s cull of hundreds of government websites has effectively removed a vast amount of useful public information from the web (and what remains, on, is badly organised). (launched in 2009) is still in beta. There has been very little attempt to engage with journalists to raise the profile of open data, which should really have been one of Cabinet Office’s priorities. So I am very sceptical that consolidating responsibility for data with Mike Bracken (within GDS) will produce significant benefits. GDS has a very tech-orientated, transactional approach and tends to treat information and data simply as consumables. What we need instead is more professional resource devoted to information management. If we must have centralised control I would rather the effort was led by ONS or National Archives.

Q. How can we police public data use effectively?

This is a very general question so I’ll just say something about open public data specifically. For the past couple of years Cabinet Office has been talking about defining some public datasets as “National Information Infrastructure”. The effort so far has been rather muddled, but fundamentally this is a good idea. We do need an official overview of public data and how it all fits together, in order to identify gaps, maintain quality, and make sure we understand the knock-on effects of adding and subtracting information sources.

However I think the Government should go further than that. I would like to see core reference datasets given a special status, in the same way that official and national statistics have a special status at the moment. Government should then extend the responsibilities of the UK Statistics Authority by creating an additional statutory objective to promote and safeguard the production and publication of the National Information Infrastructure, alongside UKSA’s existing similar objective in relation to official statistics. That would enable UKSA to comment on (and report to Parliament about) issues related to open data, and when necessary “call out” politicians when they try to misuse or misrepresent public data.