In 1988 , after much selling effort , we received a contract from the government departments involved ( the Controller of Her Majesty’s Stationary Office and the Department of Trade and Industry – neither of whom exist now ) to create model terms and conditions through which the public sector could release to the private sector in the UK all government information which was neither personal to named individual citizens or retained for security reasons.  We produced a model contract, founded a company called Information Agents Ltd to do the trades, and predicted in our final report that the two departments would face a stiff, at times impossible, battle with the rest of government to implement this.  The model contract was agreed, the agency company contracted – and almost no trades took place.

Why?  We were working on the basis that the information economy becoming increasingly important in the US,  founded on the confluence of the Paperwork Reduction Act and the Freedom of Information Act, and could be recreated in UK plc, helping to give British companies a global marketplace in information products and services in English established on the platform of a successful domestic industry resulting from public-private partnership.

And now, 22 years later and to a blaze of media triumphalism, it is here.  Following the intervention of Sir Tim Berners-Lee , and the Prime Minister saying ” Let’s Do It !”, has arrived as the agency for access and licensing.  Those who want the full story should go to the Guardian’s Charles Arthur, and then remember the long campaign fought by that newspaper in support of this cause.  I am hugely happy that this has happened, and  hope that the private sector, and all of the “accidental” publishers  flourishing on the web,  will grab this opportunity with both hands and use the data now available creatively to demonstrate what can be done.

And I am very worried.  In the intervening period I served for five years on the Advisory Panel on Public Sector Information.  I know that the government site is still only carrying a thin slice of what is available for re-use.  I know too that the last 22 years have been marked by two things: the extreme reluctance of the UK Treasury and so-called trading funds to abandon or downscale the idea of earning fees and royalties to defray the cost of collection, updating and then selling data that they have a statutory duty to collect at the taxpayer’s expense; and the whole psychology of power retention and the implicit government servant vow of omerta that surrounds the reluctance of government to divulge anything but the most basic of information for fear that it could be used against the giver.

So will the Berners Lee initiative work?  We had better hope so, since our information economy in the UK badly needs it to do so.  But Sir Tim and his colleagues need to go on a Billy Graham-style conversion campaign to re-educate government in the collaborative nature of the Web.  And win over those bastions of protected trading rights, the Meteorological Office, the Ordnance Survey, and, neither government fish nor private sector fowl, Royal Charter operations like the Environment Agency or the BBC. The resistance already have a hefty victory over postcodes( ) And then they tackle an even more difficult issue: local government.

There is certainly no scope for self-satisfaction in all of this.  Sir Tim has now made the issue real to all players, something which has taken 22 years to achieve.  It would be dreadful if the political element in all of this became a casualty of the forthcoming UK General Election.  It needs all party support.  It would be pointless to spend the next 22 years expanding the base of available content so slowly that the benefits identified by the changes were imperceptible in their impact.  And above all, we need to be aware of how easy it could be for opponents to win back some of the ground that they have lost.  A report in the Observer, the Guardian’s sister paper, indicates search analytics in the US being used to ” de-anonymize” anonymized personal data, presumably by finding patterns of activity which equate to prior behaviour.  Thank goodness few UK civil servants read the Observer: the idea that names and addresses might be re-attached to medical records, for example, would shut down epidemiological research overnight in our risk-averse culture.


Name (required)

Email (required)


Speak your mind


1 Comment so far

  1. Shane O'Neill on January 25, 2010 21:46

    You might be interetse din Francis Maude’s comments tonight at a LOCUS seminar – and I quote verbatim – with reference to the Berners Lee/Shadbolt Making Public Data Public initiative:
    “…(you will see) a high degree of continuity (in policy after the election)…we propose to carry it forward…we look forward to working with Nigel and Tim….we shall introduce a Right to Dat…etc” and more of similar ilk.
    Perhaps all it needed was an injection into APPSI of more vigorous minds to produce the change that the author desires!!