Midata: Will the public share government's enthusiasm?

Rory Cellan-Jones
Technology correspondent
@BBCRoryCJon Twitter

media captionThe BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones spoke to the government's information adviser, Prof Nigel Shadbolt, who devised the scheme

It could deliver huge growth potential to the British economy while transforming the relationship between consumers and corporations.

Nothing trivial, then, about the claims being made by the government about its midata project.

The plan is to release all sorts of data held by private businesses back to consumers - but the challenge is going to be explaining to the public just why this is so exciting.

"It can sound a bit geeky," admitted Professor Nigel Shadbolt, the man trying to push through the government's open data agenda. "But it's about getting the information that companies hold about me and you back to you in a form you can use."

The plan is that all sorts of companies will make their data available, and then other firms will help consumers to manage it and build useful applications and services on the back of it.

Up and down

Still not that clear? Neither was I until the three companies that are getting the midata ball rolling started to explain their plans at the Whitehall launch. Most impressive was Callcredit which holds credit files on every adult in the UK.

It's now promising that every consumer will be able to look at their file for free for life, in a radical change to its business model. The firm has already tested the idea, under the intriguing brand Noddle.

"Even though you're giving data back to consumers, you've still got to sell it," said Tom Ilube from Callcredit, ''and that includes branding it."

As he pointed out, a minority of consumers will leap at the idea of open data, but most will be left cold unless it is marketed skilfully.

Scottish Power's midata plans involve making its customers' annual energy consumption data more easily accessible to make the process of switching suppliers easier.  

The energy industry has a long way to go on making data more comprehensible, as anyone who has tried to work out whether their electricity and gas use is going up or down will know. But this looks like a good start.

And finally, there was the Royal Bank of Scotland which is promising to give its customers "a complete walkthrough" of all their annual transactions. So, for instance, you will be able to find out how much you spent at Tesco last year.

Cost code

Two questions spring to mind - what's the catch for consumers and why is the government getting involved? For consumers, there will be concerns about data protection and whether the principle aim in freeing up data is to hand it over to the marketing industry and profit from it.

The government is promising "protocols" to handle any privacy or consumer protection issues - but also stressing that this is a private sector initiative and it will not be hamstrung by rules and regulations.

Meanwhile the government's drive to free up public data has hit a few roadbumps. Open Data campaigners claim that ministers are keener than they should be to listen to managers at the Ordnance Survey, the Land Registry and the Met Office who want to charge for their data rather than make it free.

The consumer affairs minister Edward Davey said there was a balance to be struck when it came to public data: "It's got to be sustainable. If we gave away large datasets that cost a lot of money to collect, the data would degenerate over time."

The drive to free up both public and private data is gathering pace. The promise is that this will deliver benefits to the economy, to democracy and to consumers.

Everyone connected with the project is very excited - all they have to do now is to get the great British public to share their enthusiasm.