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Should Governments Open Up Their Data?

Opening up data has several positive elements, but it is still seen as a risk

13Jul

Data has become front page politics and despite governments often being painted as archaic and unresponsive to technological developments, they are sitting up and taking notice.

This is not surprising given the importance that data is going to have on everybody's lives in the coming years and the impact it has already had. The speed at which it has spread has caused some issues with governments though. This isn't a shock given that 90% of all data has been created in the past two years and there has been a much discussed skills gap, pushing the cost of hiring data scientists above what many government departments would be willing to pay.

However, governments have the most powerful data of any organization and strictly control the access that people have to it. This is often necessary, but there are now increasingly loud voices calling for data to be opened up.

The reasons for this are simply that opening up this publicly held data to public or private enterprises can have significant positive effects. Take the example of CityMapper, an app that utilizes travel data from companies like London's TFL to help speed up journeys within a city. After being given access to this data, the company is now worth £250 million. Without this data, the company wouldn't even exist.

Despite this well-documented success, the opening of data is not purely for increasing the value of private companies, we have also seen it having profound impacts from social enterprises with open data allowing apps like Fixmystreet to report issues to the local council that need fixing, and accelerometers helping to plot where potholes are in Boston with the app Streetbump.

We are also currently at a major crossroads regarding trust in governments, with many seeing the relationship as us vs them. Many are also of the belief that their taxes are being spent irresponsibly or on vanity projects rather than the important infrastructure projects needed. Governments are increasingly turning to open data practices to help disprove myths and mis-held beliefs around this, with tools like the Government Interrogating Spending Tool (GIST) in the UK providing a tool for people to scrutinize how governments are spending taxpayer money and making internal decisions. This kind of work creates transparency within governments, something that allows them to be held to account and citizens to see how their money is being spent without media conjecture.

However, despite all the good work being done in this area, there are still incredibly important datasets controlled by governments that are not open to the extent they could be. For instance, going back to the UK, the government recently announced that it had stopped the Care.data scheme that aimed to place all patient data into a single database. This would have had huge implications on research, diagnosis, and treatment in the UK, and stopping it destroys its potential, even if the scheme had often hit snags, not least in data privacy.

As mentioned at the top of the article, governments lacks a considerable amount of data talent because it is often not available and the talent that is there is often out of their price-range. This means that, despite holding some of the most important information in the world, it can often be misused, stolen or lost due to a lack of knowledge. We have seen that in scandals like the September 2015 hack of the Office of Personnel Management, which saw 5.6 million federal employee's fingerprints stolen. It was even seen in the misuse of social media data revealed in the Edward Snowden leaks, which made the public mistrust their governments even more with their data. This means that allowing them to make public medical records or sensitive data, even if they are assured of its anonymity still won't necessarily be trusted.

It is a difficult situation given that the benefits that could come from opening up large datasets are so huge, but historical failures by governments have damaged consumer trust around doing so. Governments need to start off small and build trust in their data abilities - only then we are likely to see an increased opening up of data that the public support. 

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