Impact of the private sector on demand

Open Data Camp 5, day two, opened with a discussion of the impact of the private sector on open data.

The session was led by Shelby Switzer, who explained she was interested in the subject because she worked for a company in the US [Healthify] that uses a lot of open data about social issues and services.

The problem: “We find the data sucks and we have to put a lot of effort into making it better,” she said. “So, I want to talk about how we get the providers to do better.

“Also, how to prove to my company that it is better to help to improve the data at source, instead of spending so much time cleaning it.”

Small errors, big problems

When Shelby asked who worked for the private sector, a lot of hands went up.  One participant said he was working on a project about energy sites, and wind turbines.

“Some of the government data on that is wrong. So if someone wants to build a wind turbine, it comes out as being on a farm, or in the nearest village,” he said.

Asked whether he told the relevant government department about these problems, he said he did, and they did get corrected – eventually. But he felt more levers would help. “Sometimes I sell people the idea that if they ask to get it corrected, it can unblight their house.”

A participant working for a government department asked how he found the right person to tell. Which is definitely a problem. “It’s very hard, because you are down to individual records. So one [turbine] record is 500 yards out. To the government, it’s ‘big deal’; but for an individual that can matter a lot.”

Another participant, who is also working on the sustainable energy sector, but in Northern Ireland, where the government is trying to encourage improvements in housing, said she had come across similar problems.

It could be hard to be sure, for a house or flat, who the letting agent was, or the insurer. “We found it matters a lot who you feed back to. You need someone who really wants to meet the original [policy] objective.”

Solutions – or partial solutions

Another participant asked if companies that wanted to use open data had tried building a model for the open data providers to work to? Shelby said her company was looking at that: “if we build a model, can we get agreement they will keep the data up to date?”

What, she asked would encourage a government department to respond? To which the session had a simple solution: money.

However, participants also flagged up some problems. For example, one said: “You start getting people saying well, if people want this data they should pay for it, and we don’t want that.”

A suggested solution was to work out non-monetary deals; for example, time-limited, exclusive access to a new or improved data set.

However, a further participant, who had worked for a council, said it often had FoI requests for parking spaces from a particular company. The council would have liked this dataset, but didn’t have it. It would have cost a lot to generate.

It talked to the company about a deal to generate it, but the business wanted exclusivity, and the council wasn’t comfortable with this. So it didn’t happen.


What about private open data?

At this point, the discussion changed track, when an ODCamp volunteer asked why the debate about open data invariably focused on government open data. Why weren’t private companies releasing their information?

Which raised the obvious question: “Why should they?” A company’s data is valuable; to it. However, one participant said the French government is looking at getting companies to release information on, for example, farming practices that impact on efficiency.

“They think that information should be available, and not the property of [a tractor maker],” he said. “But that’s quite French. It doesn’t respect private property: it wouldn’t fly in the US.”

One lever might be to require companies that get public money to release information about their contracts and their impacts as open data. One participant said this had been done, with the Buses Bill; companies must release information on issues like routes, “so you can tell where the buses are.”

However,  this would require most government departments to get much better at writing contracts. Another suggestion was that large companies, which use open data, but don’t declare this, should be required to do so – if only to show how much use and value it has.

Overall, the session felt that while the journey to open government data had been a long one, the journey to open public data was going to be even longer. Not least because there were fewer levers to use.

A participant working for a government department said: “The argument that open data is ‘right’ has not been persausive: instead, the idea that has been persuasive is that it has already been paid for, by the public, so the public should be able to use it.

“And that isn’t there for the private sector.” However, an earlier speaker argued that ideas of reciprocal value might work; companies that release data as open data can then work with other companies looking to get further value from it, to mutal benefit.