WhatfettleFree Our Data

Free Our Data!

And so to The Policy Exchange, a Think Tank in the dark heart of Westminster to join a heady mix of geeks, politicos, suits and Party Animals to Free Our Data. I have to confess Robbie and I arrived late, and Blaine had to bail early, meaning we missed the introductions. This was a real shame because ironically there is little data about the event online beyond copies of a press-release announcement. So three members of the panel were known to us: Charles Arthur chief protagonist of the Free Our Data campaign , Ed Parsons formerly of the Ordinance Survey, now at Google making him mapping “gamekeeper turned poacher” and Adam Afriyie, shadow Minister for “Innovation, Universities and Skills”. Update: Ah, Charles has a more coherent write-up in The Guardian: Data policy must help economic growth, says shadow minister which names the other two panelists: Steven Feldman and Shane O’Neill.

The panel said their stuff, actually they mostly said the same stuff, all agreeing that opening up data was indeed a good thing in principle, but hard in execution. I think all this agreement took Charles aback, causing him to question if unknown Steven Feldman really was who he claimed to be. There was also agreement publishing doesn’t come cost-free, and is subject to the usual prioritising against schools, hospitals, roads, etc. Then there was the question of how the public would feel about Civil Servants spending their time blogging and twittering when they should be filing tax receipts or wot not. Ed regaled us with the tale of how his own blogging when at the OS resulted in being threatened with the Official Secrets Act! Mr Afriyue, explicit he was outlining proposed policy, left us with the impression of politicians, still unconvinced at the value or interest in opening data, wanting to maintain control of Copyright, and apparently not seeing charging for data as an obstacle to reuse. Surprisingly there was no mention of The Open Data Commons where Ian and others have been thinking about issues of licensing data to eliminate all restrictions on data, not just IP restrictions such as copyright and database rights.

A metaphor for the way government treats this issue came from an incongruously autocratic moderator who opened up to the audience with “I want short questions, only questions, and not positions”, as if only useful discussion and understanding may arise from McCarthyite-esque trials. Funnily enough the last time I saw such an overt stifling of a knowledgeable audience was the Data for Good session at 2gether08 where sat in the round we were still subject to an unnaturally forced elevation of a panel above the floor. One wonders what is it about Open Data which encourages closed discussion.

I managed restraint and listened as smart “bedroom coders” from the audience asked some great questions. The underlying thrust from the audience being that mysociety, openstreetmap and others are using communities to publish this data already. Ideally government should hold the authoritative source, and as Jeni has shown, simple publication is all that is needed for the Web, not complex APIs or services, a message to be hammered home at rewired state next month. Wonder if any of the suits will join us geeks there!