Public data: saleable asset or national resource?

Tom Barrance

Recent announcements by two government agencies, the HMRC and the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC), regarding the sale of information has thrown a spotlight upon government information and the attendant debates of privacy verses exploitation. What is the ownership of information collected by the state? Held in trust for the citizen, or seen as assets like 3/4G mobile phone licences to be sold by government to the highest bidder? Or should all government data be treated as open data that is made freely available to all?

Government information is gathered in a number of ways, by legal requirement and from its nodal position within networks. Data, then, may not be provided willingly. The willing provision of information is governed by the concepts of notice and consent. Consent is given by the citizen having the right to know why information is collected and for what purpose, and is supported by the right to withhold agreement.  Without this procedural fairness, the use, and sale, of data can fatally undermine trust in the data collector.

The sale of public data is not a new phenomenon brought about by the clamour for “Big Data” or the development of database services like Hadoop; indeed the trend for the sale of public data may be seen with the sale of the edited electoral register under the terms laid down by the Representation of the People Act 2000. The sale of personal address data, for those who have not opted out (and the sale of all data to Credit Reference Agencies), is now well established and has fuelled the direct marketing industry, allowing large numbers of companies to purchase and exploit information. Consent is assumed with a default opt-in, the citizen having to actively request that their information is not sold. The principle established then is that data accumulated by the state is an asset of the state, and may be disposed of as such.

Turning to the recent examples of the proposal to sell some HMRC tax data,  described by Conservative MP David Davies as “borderline insane” and the currently suspended plan under which the HSCIC will make data available to a range of organisations, or customers in the language used by the HSCIC, meeting the wide ranging description of  “academics and universities, healthcare commissioners and providers, third sector organisations, information intermediaries and commercial organisations including life science companies”. These groups can purchase, and a detailed cost schedule is provided for, what is described as “De-identified data for limited disclosure or access – data that has been through a process of pseudonymisation, however there remains a risk of individuals being identified”.

The question turns to who owns personal data; that is the data likely to infringe privacy, and is this still considered to be a state asset? At first glance medical, social care and financial information would appear to be central to the definition of the private realm, especially when combined with name and address. However does this still hold when the information is pseudonymised? How secure is a pseudonym, could the data still make the individual identifiable; for example how many individuals with Crohn’s disease and one child live within a given postcode?  The exact nature of the information and the ability to cross-correlate data can lead to individual identification.

In all of these examples, it can be seen that government treats the information at its disposal as an asset which it owns outright and can sell within the bounds of data protection legislation, if it so chooses. In taking this step, the government assumes the best use of this data is to sell it to a small number of selected users, rather than releasing the information wholesale.

The voluntary sharing of what would otherwise be considered sensitive or personal data has been commonplace since the introduction of store “loyalty” cards. These cards act as a method of exchange for personal details, for example basic demographic information (including name and address) together with a detailed transaction history allowing the store to determine the spending habits of the individual and of a cohort of similar individuals; (Rust, et al., 2010).  People are happy to voluntarily part with some personal data as part of a transparent process, where there is an obvious reward and where they may consider themselves to be in control.

The Government approach is somewhat different; it appears to take the view that information its asset to be disposed of as it sees appropriate, in what is perceived as the national best interest. This is a case of acting without procedural fairness, which as can be seen from press coverage, results in a fatal loss of trust.

So, where does this leave the question of the sale of information? The issue that government must address is the conditions and terms for the release of data; and it must take the public with it on this journey. A keystone in this debate, government must determine whether it sees public information as a saleable asset or as a national resource. Transparency regarding the state’s attitude to information that it holds is crucial to popular support for either open data initiatives or the treatment of information as an asset. This transparency must include an understanding of the value of the information.

tom b

Tom Barrance is a part time Doctoral Researcher looking at Gov 2.0 in UK Local Government, and a full time Business Analyst/Project Manager at the London Borough of Hackney. He has worked in the public sector for the past 13 years, at a number of different local councils in a range of roles in Economic Development, business change and delivering ICT solutions.

Can Gov 2.0 transform Local Government?

Tom Barrance

Is there an appetite for more change in local government? In particular change that could challenge local council’s traditional relationships with the public, and how Councils conduct their business?

Drawing inspiration from the revolutionary changes enabled by the development of the collaborative web (web2.0) in the worlds of retail and peer to peer networking, a number of technologists and democrats have sought to harness the power of technology to make government better and democracy stronger by leveraging the power of citizens. Can Gov2.0 live up to the hype and deliver real transformation to local government in the UK; and will government open the door to these changes?

The Gov2.0 vision of an improved council is drawn from the underlying belief that more citizen choice and participation is a good thing, and that for this to happen citizens need access to information (open and transparent government). This vision runs contrary to James Madison’s view, which has dominated the structure of modern liberal democracy, that the election of representatives serves to refine and enhance the public debate. Rather it is argued that the representative system serves to undermine public understanding of the issues in favour of the party platform and sound bite politics. A lack of public information serves to obscure “true” organisational activity and behaviour, allowing waste to go unchallenged.

The harnessing of technology and of collaborative networks  makes access to large amounts of information, and open public debate possible; but also opens the door to another significant area of change, the use of publicly available information to develop and deliver services independently. Examples of this can be seen in the City of New York 311 apps competition, with applications based on public data delivering public services ranging from advice to urban poultry farmers to city emergency planning. These are not City services, rather community services facilitated by publication of public data. The development of community based services hosted and facilitated by local government shifts the Council to a position of being a platform provider, not just a service provider.

Making use of collaborative technology is not an untested idea in the arena of public policy. The use of social media in the reform of the Icelandic constitution in 2012 shows how people can engage and be part of a topic that would otherwise be restricted to the chosen few. More views and opinions produce better policies. Contrary to this, it may be argued that the public neither know enough, nor care enough about the day-to-day functioning of local government services, that they will not understand the technical details sufficiently to make decisions. Ignoring for now the patronising nature of these arguments that suggest that engagement in the process requires training and should therefore be restricted to a technocracy, the nature of mass involvement is that the question at hand is viewed from a diversity of perspectives, rather than just the limited perspective of the expert and elected representative.

The notion of a transformational change represents an appeal to a grand narrative of perfection. Transformation is an idea that is underscored by a belief that change will result in something which is “better” than before. This belief in a singular “better” future has driven the recent history of changes in the structure and organisation of local government. Rarely, however, do changes proposed seek to harness the citizen, rather than altering the organisational structure. That is perhaps the major difference between Gov2.0 and its predecessors such as New Public Management. Rather than being an appeal to the notion of singular perfection, Gov2.0 is an appeal via the citizen, to the bespoke – community government made by the public for the locality.

Gov2.0 is a set of ideas, which if implemented have the  power and the potential to transform the relationship between local government and those it serves, it can open up the development of policy and services to a wider audience, and allow the sunlight of transparency to shine in areas that have been hidden in the shadows. If the political will exists then Gov2.0 can make local government everybody’s business, not just the preserve of a chosen few.

tom b

Tom Barrance is a part time Doctoral Researcher looking at Gov 2.0 in UK Local Government, and full time Business Analyst/Project Manager at the London Borough of Hackney. He has worked in the public sector for the past 13 years, at a number of different local councils in a range of roles in Economic Development, business change and delivering ICT solutions.