Data dangers

Can data be too open? Mark Rowe takes a look at the lessons for the public sector from Defra’s ambitious new initiative.

It’s a sunny day and canoeists across England head for the nearest river. Before setting out, they check an app that tells them how fast that river is flowing. Too swiftly or too slowly? Then perhaps they’ll head to the beach, checking an app for bathing water quality. Afterwards they might relax with a glass of English wine, much improved since growers have been able to identify the most propitious soils in which to plant their vines. 

This is the kind of scenario that environment secretary Liz Truss hopes will unfold as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) rolls out its Open Data initiative. It is, she claims, the biggest single government “data give-away”. By making 8,000 data sets available to the public, the government says it will make it easier for people to experience the countryside and improve the environment, and save money for businesses. 

Truss says that the data release will help raise rural productivity towards urban levels, and enable farmers to apply “cutting-edge techniques” to boost efficiency while allowing for better monitoring and management of environmental risks. “Arable farmers will be able to pinpoint where on their farms are the best sites to plant crops, and that will lead to increased yields,” the environment secretary has promised.

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Gavin Freeguard, senior researcher at the Institute for Government, says that the benefits should prove mutual. “There is a positive feedback for Defra too, as the department will get insights into what information users need, and how they use it.” 

That’s a view shared by Katelyn Rogers, open data project lead at Open Knowledge, a global non-profit organisation. She believes “data is a resource, a public good”, waiting to be harnessed to tackle big environmental challenges. “People will come to this data with fresh eyes, see new possibilities,” Rogers says. “That’s important given that Defra is dealing with big issues such as climate change.”

However, Freeguard cautions that while the benefits of open data seem self-evident, the studies do not yet exist to confirm this. “It’s too early to say what the benefits will be. The UK government is seen as a world leader in terms of open data but we are still at a reasonably early stage of being able see the full effects. The main thing is that the data is put out there.”

The Country Land and Business Association is among those that welcome Defra’s initiative, arguing that it should provide opportunities for innovation for farmers, rural businesses, and land management. “This is a good thing, it came out of the blue and is a bold move,” says Dr Charles Trotman, a senior economist at the CLA.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is how to make sense of it all. Is there not a risk, in a haystack made up of needles, of failing to pick out the most useful ones?  “A lot will depend on the ability to access the data,” says Trotman. 

He adds: “It would be a big mistake for Defra to just say ‘there you go’ and release everything on a certain date. It will take significant time to analyse this in a meaningful way. We – and other users – would want to work with Defra to pinpoint the right types of data, so that certain parties can access certain types of data sets. Otherwise everyone is going to be running around like headless chickens.”

Freeguard too, says government must be aware of the risk that useful data can sometimes be “hidden in plain sight”, as “big data evangelism” overruns more nuanced and judicious thinking and leads to a badly handled release. “It’s important the civil servants sit down with users, ask them what sort of things they might find helpful.”

Defra officials, according to Rogers, need to ensure that potential users conduct trial access use of the data before it is released. “They can track how they use the data, how they navigate the data sources, see where they are getting lost,” he says. “The most important thing for the civil servants is to look at this from the perspective of the user. These communities won’t have in-depth knowledge of the structure of government.”

The CLA has also expressed caution, lest open data proves to be a little too open. In particular, it believes there should be a mechanism in place to ensure commercial confidentiality is safeguarded. “We don’t mind the financial accounts of farms being published, but that needs to be anonymised,” says Trotman. “If a name is linked to the accounts it would open Defra up to being sued under the Data Protection Act.”

Then there is the challenge of maintaining momentum for such data-sharing. Lord Maude, the former Cabinet Office minister, alluded to this at the Open Data Champions roundtable event this spring, when he admitted that there was “a tendency for the first 12 months in government to be equally enthusiastic, because all you’re doing is exposing what your predecessors have done.” At which point reality kicks in. “Then you get to the moment when you are in real time, exposing for scrutiny and accountability what you have done yourself and all of a sudden it doesn’t seem like such a great idea.”

Colin Marrs

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