Data storm: Making government data pay
- 16 December 2011
- From the section Business
Here's the good news: Europe's fiscally squeezed governments are sitting on assets that could be worth 40bn euros ($52bn, £33.6bn) a year.
The bad news is that, to realise those assets' full potential, governments have to give them away.
For free, and without licensing conditions, to all comers, including multi-national corporations as well as to local start-ups.
The assets are gargantuan archives of data that public administrations generate in the course of their public tasks. Such so-called public sector information can range from data sets about the weather and the natural environment to great works of historic art.
Earlier this week, the vice president of the European Commission, Neelie Kroes, called for action to turn this information into gold.
"Taxpayers have already paid for this information, the least we can do now is give it back to those who want to use it in new ways that help people and create jobs and growth," she says.
She was following a lead set by the UK government. In his autumn statement last month, Chancellor George Osborne promised to open for re-use government data sets covering transport and especially health.
"Making more public sector information available will help catalyse new markets and innovative products and services as well as improving standards and transparency in public services," the Treasury said.
The presumption is that all Crown Copyright data will be available under an "open government licence", which allows its re-use in apps and other commercial products without the need to seek permission.
The Europe-wide policy announced this week would take this even further.
Ms Kroes proposed widening a 2003 European directive on the re-use of public sector information to make it a "general rule" that all documents produced by public bodies can be re-used for any purpose, and that public bodies should not be allowed to levy charges for their data apart from the cost of meeting the specific request.
In the digital age, this will normally be zero.
The new rules, which could come in to force by 2013 if the directive is approved by member states and the European Parliament, would also require museums, libraries and public archives to open their data for free re-use.
Act of faith
But is open data really such a no-brainer? For all the political enthusiasm behind the ideal, turning it into reality faces real obstacles - especially when it comes to turning data into economic growth.
The immediate problem is that open data is an economic act of faith.
It requires governments to give up the trickle of income they currently receive from licensing data and selling products such as weather forecasts and maps on the promise of greater returns in the future.
Ms Kroes says: "Your data is worth more if you give it away."
But this can be hard to swallow if you are a public body depending on income from intellectual property.
The more so as, over the past two decades, UK governments have actively encouraged organisations like Ordnance Survey to earn money from commercial activity rather than direct tax subsidies.
The UK government's plan is to ease the transition to open data by setting up a new Public Data Corporation, which will manage the licensing of "value added" data from organisations such as Ordnance Survey, Land Registry and the Met Office. Critics say that this is a prelude to outright privatisation of these bodies.
Local authorities - which unlike Whitehall departments own the intellectual property in data they create - also "struggle with the business case" for making their data available, according to the Society of IT Management (SOCITM).
Meanwhile, examples of businesses exploiting open data for commercial success are still thin on the ground, with the majority coming from the US, which has long had a policy of allowing re-use of federal government data.
One UK company that has managed it is Cadcorp.
One early benefit of the UK Coalition government's free data policy is that, for the first time, the UK has a single definitive database of addresses.
The National Address Gazetteer is designed to eradicate the confusion created by three state-owned bodies - local government, Ordnance Survey and Royal Mail - running their separate and competing database in the hope of charging for data.
Cadcorp, a specialist geographical software developer in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, is making the new address book more usable with a commercial product called Address Loader.
The software automates many of the processes associated with handling the gazetteer, to the benefit of users in both the public and private sectors.
One customer is already using data to identify prospective advertising locations, marketing manager Richard Spooner says. Other customers include housing associations.
"One housing association which has calculated it will save £2m on housing management costs over 10 years, simply because it now has accurate estimates of the geographic extent of their maintenance responsibilities."
Under the old licensing regime, access to such data would have cost £25,000 a year, Mr Spooner says.
Another problem is that the public sector information with the most business value is highly personal.
The chancellor's Autumn Statement highlighted the potential benefits to the pharmaceutical industry of publishing anonymised data drawn from NHS patient records.
Such data has been used for R&D since the 1980s, but only (in theory, at least) if patients give their consent. Last week, the UK prime minister said that the NHS constitution would be amended so that patients would be assumed to have given consent for their data to be re-used unless they actively opt out.
A fight looms.
A final problem with the open data revolution is changing cultural habits within public bodies.
"There is a real risk of the empire striking back," says Andrew Stott, the government's first director of digital engagement and a former deputy chief information officer.
Mr Stott warned this year's Open Government Data Camp, organised by the Open Knowledge Foundation in Warsaw, that old habits die hard and - civil servants will tend to default to blocking access to data sets.
"We need to watch them like hawks," he said.
While there may very well be gold in Europe's government data, it is unlikely to be mined in time to rescue the continent's economy from its current woes.