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The Dangers Facing Open Data

Open data has created significant opportunities, but with government disruption this may change

4Aug

Open data is not a new subject, it is one that has been prevalent in both the US and the UK for the past decade. However, as we have seen monumental upheaval in the UK and soon to be in the US, its importance is becoming all the more clear.

President Obama has, unsurprisingly, become one of the key drivers behind the opening up of data in the US. On his first day in office he issued an executive order to open government and then established an open data policy in 2013. This has had significant impacts, including allowing students to see the colleges that offer the best value, help to develop neighbourhood development and improve medical safety. It has not only been the president's office who have made these attempts either, with Congress also passing the DATA act, which increases the depth and usability of government spending data.

In the UK, David Cameron's Conservative government was widely praised for the creation of their open data platform, data.gov.uk, and Sir Tim Berners-Lee with Sir Nigel Shadbolt creating the Open Data Institute to help push use of the myriad of open data sets available. These swift moves have created strong results too, with the UK now sitting 2nd behind Taiwan in terms of open data.

Both efforts have had significant results for the US and UK, pushing them forward both in terms of government transparency and international acceptance, however both are potentially under threat given the huge regime changes within the countries.

Firstly, the UK has voted to leave the EU which, although it doesn't necessarily mean that data will not be as open as it once was, makes it considerably easier to make it so if a government wants to. One of the main reasons for this is the EU Directive on the re-use of public sector information, which supports the notion that: 'All content that can be accessed under national access to documents laws is in principle re-usable beyond its initial purpose of collection for commercial and non-commercial purposes.' Through leaving the EU, this directive will no longer affect the UK, so theoretically all data could become private once again.

The vote to leave the EU also forced David Cameron, the former Prime Minister, to resign and he has been replaced by Theresa May. At present, it is hard to establish her principles surrounding data, but in her previous role as Home Secretary she attempted to impose the Draft Communications Data Bill, which has become known as the Snoopers’ Charter. This bill required internet and mobile phone providers to store browsing activity and communications of each user, something that Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said 'will force many relatively small companies to hang on to data that they would not otherwise retain, which puts the data at risk.'

On the other side of the pond, the presidential election is delicately balanced between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, neither of whom have especially strong track records with data.

Hillary Clinton's Democrat party has just been the victim of an email hack and she famously used a personal server for top secret emails, which rather than showing outright hostility towards data, shows a lack of understanding of it. In Hillary's case though, she would be likely to work alongside the data team put into place by President Obama, led by DJ Patil.

Donald Trump, however, has been totally anti-data, from his campaign where 70% of his claims made in speeches are not true, through to his views of Obama's data driven victories - 'I’ve always felt it was overrated. Obama got the votes much more so than his data processing machine. And I think the same is true with me.' He has also only recently adopted any kind of data strategy at the behest of the Republican party, which is a strong indication that he doesn't understand its importance and is therefore less likely to support open approaches to it, let alone champion it.

Both countries have seen significant benefits from the opening up of data, not only in a social context, but also through private enterprizes who have had the opportunity to utilize it. As both still need to bolster their economies these kinds of programs are increasing their opportunities in this area and hopefully we will see these kinds of programs continue in the face of huge change. 

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