Public/private sector marriage guidance

“Do you work in the public sector, and feel that business just doesn’t understand you?” asked session pitcher Jez Nicholson from Pororoca. “Or do you work in business, and feel unloved by the private sector? If so, you need to come to my public/private marriage guidance session.”

It’s not you, it’s me (ok, it’s you)

This was a session about the relationship between the providers and users of data, who tend to sit in the public and private sector respectively. As Jez said: “Sometimes, I wonder if we realise we are in a relationship.

“And I wondered how other people feel. Do we publish data, and they pick it up and run with it to create growth? And we’re all happy? Or do we feel they take things, and abuse us a little bit?”

One speaker argued that in order to answer this question, it might be useful to think about some of the models for publishing data that are out there. Some organisations just publish, and don’t worry too much about what happens next.

For example, TfL publishes its timetable data, without worrying about platforms and apps, and leaves others to come up with ways of using it that benefit travellers. While the ONS publishes “loads and loads of information about what is going on in the country” – from the census to the Labour Force Survey. And companies make money from that, by turning it into intelligence for business, or reports for think-tanks or councils.

But other data providers want to recover their costs. Or at least see a share of the return that others are getting. That might feel “fair” to them, but not to the small businesses, community interest companies, and charities, which have to spend a lot on data and the infrastructure to use it, before they can start doing what they want to do with it.

“It is,” as one speaker put it, “a complicated dynamic.” Or, as another put it, at worst “you get these pathologies” where government departments are told to do things, like publish open data, but not funded to do it, so they don’t do it consistently.

Or there are charges, even when making data freely available might deliver more economic benefits (as discussed earlier at Open Data Camp 9, Royal Mail charging for the post code data file is a good example).

On the up side, another speaker suggested, the partners are at least talking about their problems. “Data is part of the conversation now,” he said. “We have a transparency code, and people expect numbers to be part of that. So I think it is changing a little bit.”

On the down, that might be hard to sustain, given the ongoing squeeze on public funding. After all, it’s not unusual for marriages to come under pressure when there is very little money around.

Let’s find a way to talk…

Session participants agreed that one way forward is to set up a dialogue. Departments that publish open data need to be clear about what they are collecting it for, and how it is validated.

Businesses need to be able to talk to them about what they need; and, one participant suggested, more willing to give back by providing feedback, blogs, or case studies on the benefits they have achieved; and another argued, be willing to publish more of the data they hold.

Sian Thomas argued that now is a good moment for conversation, because there is a new government in place, that will need to set its spending priorities. However, one participant suggested there’s a shortage of suitable forums: established routes for business to talk to government, like Chambers of Commerce, or Local Enterprise Partnerships, don’t tend to work for modern, data driven businesses.

Others noted that Open Data Camp is a great route for people to come together and share ideas. But there’s a “gap” when it comes to taking them forward. As Jez put it: “It feels like we’re leaving notes for each other in the kitchen.

“There needs to be a way to systematise it. Because just bumping into people on an ad-hoc basis, doesn’t seem to be a route to life-long success.” Perhaps, a speaker suggested, the final session of the day, looking at how open data can make use of the next 98 days of Labour’s first 100 days, will come up with some ideas…

Blog post of note

Shaping the Data Marketplace through User Research – Central Digital and Data Office

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