March 02, 2012 | Lee Maguire

Open Data

Open data - that is, collected data that is opened to the public for reuse - is generally believed to have great potential to increase and enhance citizen participation. UK government "open by default" policy in this area includes the Open Govermment Licence, the 2012-founded Open Data Institute, and the UK's Open Govermment Partnership national action plan 2013-2015.

The goals of greater government transparency and exploiting under-utilised data resources are generally unobjectionable. However, there are significant risks. The first is that vested interests within government departments or the desire to maintain revenue from closed data sets might derail the policy. A second is that using data for complex decision-making and collective organising will get insufficient attention compared to individual reuse by citizens and consumers, The third is threats to privacy when commercial interests seek to conflate "open data" and "personal data".


"Open data" is a complex term because it encompasses a concept, a group of technologies, a policy, and a group of long-term goals and aspirations. The concept is that stores of information that were formerly created in hosts of separate government departments and agencies for their own use should be published for everyone to use and republish as they wish. The technologies are whatever's needed to convert the many formats in which such data may be stored into reusable forms. The policy is the UK coalition government's commitment to open data, an area in which the UK currently leads the world via the ODI. Besides its work with government the ODI assists companies that wish to open up their data and supports start-ups and innovators in this area. Finally, civil society sees open data as an opportunity to make government more transparent, accountable, and participatory while also promoting economic innovation.

There have been significant debates around the first of these risks, particularly as public services that maintain high-value public data sets such as weather, land records, and national mapping are sold off to the private sector. A good example is the 2013 sale of the Royal Mail, which allowed the Postcode Address File database to remain closed.

The second of these risks requires civil society to build the capacity to work with open data for visualisation and analysis.

The third, privacy, is the most contentious, especially in the area of healthcare, where pharmaceutical companies want access to patient health data to aid research. Claims that such personal and sensitive data can be successfully "anonymised" ignore evidence of the very real threats that individual records can be reidentified.

ORG's view

With respect to open data, the Open Rights Group focuses on two particular areas. First, via the Open Government Partnership ORG engages with government to develop the national information infrastructure and the UK transposition of the EU directive on the reuse of public sector information. Second, ORG is working with groups across Europe to create a clearer understanding of the privacy impact of open data policies and limit risks to personal privacy.

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