As Government data releases continue apace potential hurdles need to be addressed

2 11 2010

Two recent government releases signal that the drive from the top for transparency and data publication remains strong and healthy. On 28 October the Government published details of hospitality and gifts received by ministers and special advisers, ministerial meetings with external organisations and all overseas trips by ministers across government. The Prime Minister has also published an updated quarterly list of special advisers and the salaries of those earning above £58,200. Francis Maude, in commending these latest moves, stated that: “The data published today is yet another step-change as we strive to make transparency an integral part of government business.”

Furthermore on 29 October the government published the latest round of Structural Reform Plans (SRPs), continuing its commitment to promote accountability and transparency across all government departments and to allow people to check that departments are meeting their commitments in turn. The Prime Minister first launched the draft SRP’s in June with departments setting out their reform priorities and the actions they will take to achieve them, within a specified timetable and alongside measureable milestones.

However, the freeing of data has not been all plain sailing. On 18 October the API (datafeed) that many third party developers rely on to produce transport planning apps for London went down, leading to a clash between TfL, third party producers and London’s Datastore/Government policy. While TfL claims the API was not switched off intentionally, but was interrupted following a routine security update; the truth seems more elusive. Malcolm Barclay, the developer of London Travel Deluxe which relies on the API, believes the move is a deliberate one and is about control, citing the fact that many other similar APIs have remained operational and that he was in not informed of the change. Meanwhile Jonathan Raper, CEO of Placr, a member of the mayor’s digital advisory board and a consultant to the London Datastore, pins the blame on TfL’s middle management. While the senior executives at TfL support the move, he says, there’s an institutionalised fear of developers lower down — where coders are thought of as hackers, and there’s a fear that public data will be misrepresented.

These issues of control and institutional reticence to release data are likely to be ongoing within TfL for some time and are indicative of a broader concern for the future of the the transparency agenda. High level support for the process has been strong and visible: witness the Coalition programme for government and the speech made by Boris Johnson launching the London Datastore. However, it will require sustained pressure,  commitment and political will for the final goal to be achieved: to fundamentally change institutional perceptions of the nature of public data (open, not owned) and the ways it is used. TfL may be the precursor of difficult time ahead.

Sean Kirwan

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