ODCamp 7: Using a pillars of power approach to opening data

One of the final sessions of the first day of Open Data Camp 7 in London was led by Anneka France from The Rivers Trust. She she had wanted to run the session because she had wanted to get hold of the National Soil Map because she wanted money for an EU-funded project to restore peatland for climate mitigation and flood prevention.

The National Soil Map is covered by a commercial licence, and the charity was quoted £25,000 to get the data it needs. Which it can’t afford. But then Anneka heard about the ‘pillars of power approach’ “which has been used to overthrow governments” and wondered if it could help.

What is the pillars of power approach?

So, she said, the traditional idea of data is that it is locked up in a stable triangle, controlled by the powerful, that is hard for others knock over. Whereas the pillars of power approach says the data is in an upside down triangle that is propped up by lots of assumptions, many of which can be challenged. Another important point, Anneka added, is that “you do not need to take all the pillars down.” Just removing one or two might be enough.

So, she asked her campers, what kind of approaches might be used to justify try and the props, and what could be tried to knock them down? Common justifications for not releasing data as open data include things like:

  • we paid for this data
  • we manage and update it
  • we’ve always done it this way, we don’t know how to do things differently
  • it provides us with an income stream
  • it would cause us reputational damage to release it
  • it’s politically sensitive
  • laws like the GDPR stop us.

Which means, logically, that challenges might include things like: this started out as public data (the National Soil Map started life as a government data collection, but ended up in private hands thanks to a number of mergers and joint ventures), what Anneka called “PPP or polite, persistent pestering” (a participant in the session said they had got hold of bus data from a council “by being a bl**dy nuisance about it), and offering challenge and expertise (campers suggested offering to second people into the data holder to help it release the information).

Other approaches might include lobbying stakeholders, such as ministers, to open up the data (something that has happened in the medical sphere, where drug companies have come under public pressure to open up their trials data), trying to get the information by other means, such as Freedom of Information Act requests, and doing it yourself, for example by using volunteers to create a new data set (the Rivers Trust itself trains the public to survey river flies, to assess the health of rivers).

Holding out for a hero

Unfortunately, none of these approaches have solved Anneka’s problem: although, on the lobbying front, she joked that she had thought of asking Extinction Rebellion to take up her cause, and said that the Rivers Trust had been trying to persuade Defra to help, given the importance of maintaining soil to future agriculture.

Session participants suggested “appealing to an organisation’s better nature” or, perhaps more practically, its income stream; by finding a funder for a rival product or co-operatively opening up a new market in, for example, consultancy services. Failing all that, one camper suggested that: “What we need is something like the Justice League: a team of superheroes to go in and fight data injustices.

[Session Notes]

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