After a couple of years in the sun, the outright optimism of the open data movement is beginning to give way to healthy scepticism and lively debate.
Today, for example, an influential blogger on the topic of open data in local government posted a highly-critical piece about SpotlightOnSpend, a commercially-run site through which councils can publish their spending data. You can read his post here.
The way in which the site publishes spending data, CountCulture points out, does not comply with the government’s draft open data guidelines, which are modeled on principles generally accepted by experts. SpotlightOnSpend’s data is not machine-readable, for example, it is presented in a summarised rather than raw form and it can only be downloaded for personal use – rather than an under an explicitly open licence.
While some councils publish the data separately in a way that does conform to these principles, others use SpotlightOnSpend as the sole public platform for expenditure data. CountCulture argued that this constitutes giving Spikes Cavell, the company behind the website, access to the data “on a privileged basis”.
CountCulture’s analysis was excoriating. “Let me be absolutely clear here: This is not open data, not a desirable approach, will not achieve the results of transparency or of equality of access, and is not good for the public sector.”
I contacted Spikes Cavell this afternoon for their reaction. The company’s chief executive Luke Spikes welcomed the criticism, but felt that one point had been overlooked – that it is first and foremost a spend analysis software and consultancy supplier, and that it publishes data through SpotlightOnSpend as a free, optional and supplementary service for its local government customers. The hope is that this might help the company to win business, he explains, but it is not a money-spinner in itself.
“The contribution we’re making to transparency is less about what the purists would like to see, it's simply putting the information out there in a form that is useful for the audience for which it is intended [i.e. citizens and small businesses]” he said. “But there are a few things we haven’t done right, and we’ll fix that.”
Following the criticism, Cavell says that SpotlighOnSpend will make the data available for download in its raw form. “That’s what we thought was the most sensible solution to overcoming this obstacle," he told me.
Whether this will will satisfy the critics is questionable, however, as there appears to be an ideological component to this dispute.
Unlike their Labour predecessors – who were equally vocal advocates of open data – the Conservative wing of the coalition government has emphasised the benefits to the private sector. “It will boost British jobs,” Francis Maude, now Cabinet Office minister, wrote on the eve of the election. "Businesses and social entrepreneurs … will build new applications and services using previously locked-up government data."
Cavell, who was inspired to launch SpotlightOnSpend by an article written by Tory leader David Cameron and whose site carries on endorsement from communities secretary Eric Pickles, says the Conservative party recognises that the grand vision of open data cannot be achieved without the involvement of businesses.
“The public sector will not be able to do this on its own,” he says. “There are not enough enthusiasts out there with enough time to get this done properly for the whole of the public sector. They are going to have to work with a whole bunch of people who might otherwise be uneasy bedfellows.”
This debate touches not only on the role of government and the private sector, but also the value of data versus understanding – a critical topic in an information overloaded era. And it has only just begun.