Not an obituary: ODUG, three years at the heart of Open Data
As of May 29th, the Open Data User Group has ceased to exist and, as a result, I am no longer a “member of a ministerial advisory panel” (*). There seems to be some interest about the future. I have received quite a lot of comments and feedback recently, most of which gravitate around these three questions:
- will ODUG be re-appointed?
- what has ODUG achieved?
- how can we make a future ODUG better?
I would like to talk about my experience with ODUG by addressing these points.
Firstly: I have no information about a possible ODUG reappointment.
My view on this is that the Government and Civil Service still need advice on Open Data, one way or another. If you have noticed, we have gone from four to zero advisory panels in the space of two years:
- the Data Strategy Board was wound up in 2013
- APPSI was wound up in 2015
- ODUG is presumably being wound up in 2015
- the Public Sector Transparency Board (PSTB) was appointed until April 2015 (as far as I know).
Some of these competencies could and probably will be taken up by the ODI, but — and I say this with utmost respect and admiration for what the ODI are doing — I think it would be limiting and not representative of the wider Open Data community to rely on the ODI alone.
Hence, the problem remains.
What about the achievements? The scope of ODUG’s work slightly shifted during its 3 years of existence. Its composition changed, too. It’s easy to notice that in its first term ODUG’s make up was mostly representative of industry and G-Cloud suppliers, mirroring the intention of fostering economic growth through Open Data. As policy (and licensing) issues became apparent, the appointments moved to member with skills in the technical, policy and comms arena.
A merely quantitative analysis of achievements would not make justice of ODUG’s work. “You’ve only helped release 5 dataset”, I’ve heard. I don’t say this to defend myself: we were not equipped to secure the release of dataset, our only power being persuasion; and it was by using persuasion and technical credibility that we’ve kept Open Data right within the ministerial attention span.
Our best contribution was to bring scrutiny to the way the Open Data release mechanisms function; aiming for the final goal, but keeping the process in mind. When I worked on a benefits case for the release of a national dataset of GP practices, I knew this would not lead to the immediate release of such dataset; but that work was instrumental in getting a number of organisations around a table, for the first time discussing Open Data across their sector, and seminal in what was then the definition of the National Information Infrastructure.
Of course, work of this kind often goes unnoticed or criticised. “You’re pulling hard on a door marked ‘push’”. You know, there are two ways to play this game: you either play inside the system and try to change it and make the best of it; or play outside it and do something to challenge it. Both are legitimate. But I do believe that the shouty activist screaming for data releases outside a minister’s window can achieve more if he’s got someone inside the building telling the minister “the shouty guy is right”. As it happens, it also turns out that the “push” sigh on the door is often wrong because no one has bothered pulling.
Administering the Release of Data Fund was a stunning success, too. But I believe that ODUG’s best legacy will be our document on the NII. It shows why such a group should exist: to advise on policy, to suggest how to implement that policy, to point to the right process to maintain the policy and its implementation.
Things were not perfect. No advisory panel is perfect. No surprises. There are a number of things that could work better, starting with the data request mechanism — we were in charge of prioritising these requests, but the system had issues (see meeting minutes for details) and, most importantly, there wasn’t a clear chain of responsibility to deal with the requests. Hence, whatever the future ODUG might look like, that chain of responsibility will need to be in place. Open Data Governance is the big concept that is still missing from the discourse, and we have argued strongly for it in the context of the NII, where it will be even more important.
There are not many shapes that a “user group” that advises civil servants and ministers can take: the public appointments procedure is still the most transparent way to achieve this. This is not to say that the Civil Service doesn’t need to become better at talking to the Open Data community, to users, publishers, activists, technical experts, if they wish the agenda to proceed effectively. For example, the mechanism of consultations could easily become part of a future ODUG’s mandate.
ODUG worked best where it provided advice on policy and implementation; letting us administer the Release of Data Fund showed the importance of Open Data practitioners at the heart of financial decisions of that kind. Arguing in favour of projects such as Open Addresses UK was a highlight of this process. With no body remaining to do any of this work, the Government and Civil Service should think carefully of where they want the Open Data agenda to go and whether they can do this without an established external, critical “friend”.
Should ODUG stay with Cabinet Office? One criticism was that the relationship between the Transparency Team and ODUG was too close. Well, given the way it works — the Transparency Team taking the lead for Open Data releases across the different Departments — it could not have been otherwise. With respect to relationship management and history, with the Labour Government first and the Coalition afterwards, Open Data has been a Cabinet Office “thing” for almost a decade. Things might change, of course, but there needs to be a central “push” to make things happen is still needed. Who else could take up this role? The ONS would be well suited for the technical aspects — it’s got the skills that Cabinet Office lacks; but there could be a way to integrate something similar to what the National Information Board does in a health and care context, too.
Let me conclude by saying that I thoroughly enjoyed spending two years with ODUG, helping shape the Open Data agenda from the inside.
I joined with the intention of contributing to the technical aspects of Open Data and representing the academic technical community, but my participation evolved beyond that very quickly, turning me into a transparency policy wonk. I thank my employer, St George’s University of London, for encouraging and supporting me with this extra work.
Although I see the limits we have met, I still think that our advice has helped a number of people and institutions appreciate what Open Data can do. Among my biggest personal “wins” I certainly remember being a judge for the Land Registry Open Data Challenge; this was at the time the Price Paid dataset was released, illustrating the possibly disruptive consequences on the housing market; and at the Open Data Challenge Series on Culture and Heritage, showing that Open Data can be useful in sectors that are not the usual “mapping services”.
What lies ahead — I’ve written about the future on data.gov.uk — is understanding how to make Open Data an ongoing part of services within the public sector; how to make data skills something common; how to use it for better service design and user experience; and finally, how to make sure that data-based, evidence-informed, policies become the norm, while staying user-centred and humane.