Response to Geoff Mulgan’s “Will open data be a damp squib?”

Geoff’s piece, Will open data be a damp squib? prompted me to comment. At length. And wander around a bit. So for what it’s worth…

An alternate view: the ‘value’ of open data is a function of its impact in people’s lives.

So transport and geographical data – ‘getting from A to B’ or ‘finding C’ – is unsurprisingly useful, and straightforward to monetise. Which possibly explains why government / Ordnance Survey / Royal Mail are so reluctant to relinquish their monopolies on some datasets.

Open data about the operation of government and/or public services may be useful – even invaluable – in terms of transparency and accountability, but its ‘entrepreneurial value’ is quite low. And institutions will tend to resist revealing the truly shameful, corrupt or embarrassing stuff, preferring – where they cannot avoid publication – to bury it in a blizzard of other data; the classic bureaucrat’s tactic. This, ungenerously, might also go some way towards explaining the ‘oversupply’ issue.

(Also, who says what is ‘open’? We don’t only want to know what the government is willing to tell us. We want to know what we want to know, which is why ‘open data’ should NEVER be allowed to replace, substitute for or weaken Freedom of Information.)

The most valuable data is data about people. People who can buy stuff, e.g. advertising; people who need stuff, e.g. service provision; people who can give you stuff, e.g. votes ≡ power. It is as it ever was; people as exploitable resource.

Everyone wants it. Companies will ‘give’ you loads of cool stuff for it – repackaged relationships (social networks), software, pizza tokens…

And the public services may hoover it up, form after form. Governments may even mandate it – which is what makes the database state especially dangerous. But just because personal data has been gathered in or by the public sector, doesn’t make it ‘public data’ any more than my name, address and date of birth ‘belongs’ to my bank.

Bottom line: personal data ≠ open data. There are laws about that.

And “anonymised” doesn’t get you off the hook, much as many in government and business would quite like it to. The shameful attempts to present “anonymisation” – in practice more often pseudonymisation or de-identification, as genuinely anonymised data tends not to be very useful – as an alternative to proper notification and informed consent are coming from a similar sort of self-serving, self-justifying, shallow-thinking place as the one that reckons ‘big data’ (i.e. pattern-driven prediction) is hard science, when it’s more like something between stats and artifact-discovery.

In reality, the ‘bigger’ data all gets – i.e. the more cross-referenceable datasets there are out there – the less anonymiseable it all is. And there’s maths about that (cf. Differential Privacy).

Taking or using something “just because it’s there” – or, to quote the Second Data Protection Principle, that has been obtained for a specified and lawful purpose – isn’t ‘openness’. It’s theft.

I repeat: personal data ≠ open data. For, in an information society, things done to my data affect me in my life as surely as if you walked up to me and punched me in my face. You might not intend to do those things – but if you suck up or process my data and you or others make decisions based on it, I’m the one who must suffer the consequences. So I get to choose.

Personal data is my data. Not anyone else’s to exploit without my consent. It’s not ‘public’, unless I freely choose it to be – and it’s definitely not ‘open’!

Returning to my original point about functional value; health data – deeply personal and virtually impossible to “anonymise” and keep useful – is amongst the highest value data of all. (The potential for fear marketing alone must be worth billions, probably trillions if you add in sequenced DNA data.) Hence the multiple ongoing attempts right now to suck up, pass around and sell or ‘give away’ – in “anonymised” form, of course – our health data.

I agree with Geoff’s point about vested interests – that where open data has succeeded it has done so because it didn’t threaten vested interests – and also with his observation that there’s not the political will to tackle the “top down systems”, i.e. the bureaucracies, which – cognisant of information as power – institutionally tend to use information technologies to embed and extend their empires.

The rhetoric is agile and citizen-centred, the reality is an all-too-familiar attempt to redefine personal data as ‘public’ or ‘open’; to “overcome the barriers to sharing”. And where government transformation – or “transformational government”, if you can remember back a few short years – isn’t about government changing itself at all. It’s about changing us.

(N.B. You will note that in this, the interests of the corporations and bureaucracies are quite closely aligned. Which makes ‘data envy’ on the part of governments all the more pernicious.)

So, if open data – i.e. information about systems and their operations – works, where’s the disintermediation in the public sector and the bureaucracies that we’ve seen in commercial supply chains? New political and bureaucratic initiatives add in yet more layers of complexity, exposing the citizen to yet more “computer says no” or “your problem doesn’t fit our solution”, paid for by paring back yet more front line staff while the back office and managerial layers metastasise and the systems integrators are laughing all the way to the (failed) bank, not even having paid their taxes…

For an example, look no further than the reengineering of the NHS: the new Commissioning Board introduces a brand new mega-bureaucracy, minimises accountability, replaces hundreds of administrative bodies with hundreds more, leaves an entire Department effectively redundant but still in place. And its first move? Abolish system-wide information governance oversight, re-write the Constitution and go for the data…

Until government proves it can properly reengineer itself, delivering genuinely citizen-oriented services without destroying the all-important human interface, it simply shouldn’t be trusted with any more of our data. Especially if it’s going to redefine what’s ours as ‘public’ or ‘open’ in the hope of a quick buck. Sorry, “stimulating economic activity”.

I understand the urgency. I’m a huge fan of entrepreneurship; I’ve been operating in that mode for the last 20 years or so. But the danger isn’t that open data is a damp squib, it’s that open data is subverted or suborned to drive the further commodification and bureaucratisation of personal data, to limit choice, control and consent*, and to make citizens less free.

*For if liberal democracy is to work we must be autonomous agents, not coerced ‘consumers’ of government or, far worse, the ‘product’ – as in “If you’re not paying for…”

This entry was posted in choice and consent, database state, medical confidentiality, open data. Bookmark the permalink.

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