In a report on statistics and open data published today, the Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) says the benefits - potentially running into billions of pounds for the economy and society as a whole - of harvesting the masses of unused knowledge and information that Government collects outweigh the risks to privacy, and that there must be a “presumption of openness” with public data.
Open data is accessible to all, free of restrictions on use or redistribution and is digital and machine-readable so that it can be combined with other data.
Government and its agencies collect masses of data which, if made available and useable, can empower citizens, make Government more accountable, improve public services, and benefit the economy and society as a whole. Deloitte has assessed “the value of public sector information to consumers, businesses and the public sector in 2011/12 [as] approximately £1.8 billion” and the “social value” of public sector information “on the basis of conservative assumptions” to be “in excess of £5 billion for 2011/12”
Some government data sets are of huge direct value to the economy. The Committee says that the Postcode Address File (PAF) was included in the sale of Royal Mail to boost the share price at flotation: this move took an immediate but narrow view of the value of such datasets. PAF should have been retained as a public data set, as a national asset.
'Right to data'
The Committee says Government needs to recognise that the public has the inherent ‘right to data’, as under Freedom of Information, and that it should bring forward the necessary legislation to reinforce this right without delay. There should be a presumption that restrictions on government data releases should be abolished.
The Committee also say that the public also has a right to privacy and that care must be taken to ensure this is protected. The recent controversy over care.data demonstrates the privacy concerns over the collection and sharing of data, but also the danger that undue or exaggerated concerns will unnecessarily undermine the case for open data.
Bernard Jenkin, Chair of the Committee, said:
“The sale of the PAF with the Royal Mail was a mistake. Public access to public sector data must never be sold or given away again. This type of information, like census information and many other data sets, is very expensive to collect and collate into useable form, but it also has huge potential value to the economy and society as a whole if it is kept as an open, public good.
“The UK Government was an early mover on government open data, but other Governments, watching the UK with interest, are catching up fast. If the Government does not take the opportunities offered, there is a risk in the UK that businesses with growth potential will be deterred by fees for data, and by legal and administrative barriers, while other countries are developing their data industrial base and stealing a lead over the UK.
“Government departments, led by the Cabinet Office, need to do much more to maximise the social and economic potential of open data, not least in increasing their own efficiency and effectiveness. It is not enough to simply put data 'out there'.
“Many civil and public servants lack the skills to interpret data properly and some civil servants do not seem to share the Government’s desire for openness. There should be a presumption of openness, and a willingness to 'publish early even if imperfect’.
“There is much to be gained from open data, but the Government’s direction of travel is not clear. Open data needs to be treated as a major Government programme in its own right, with the active leadership and management which are the only way to realise the substantial benefits that are within our grasp.”