Last week I attended a cross-political party dinner given by the Technology Strategy Board(TSB) to promote their Digital Britain programme to policy-makers. There were about 20 of us there – mostly politicians, a number of people from the TSB and a few people from industry.
Epimorphics is currently working on two TSB (part-)funded feasibility studies – both of these are concerned with exploiting the linked data being made available on data.gov.uk. So this felt like a good opportunity to see how politicians from different parties viewed the current approach to publishing government data. I wasn’t expecting anyone to argue against the existence of data.gov.uk – in the wake of Duckhousegate I didn’t expect to hear anyone advocating “we must keep government data secret” – but I am concerned that the approach to publication might change, and that a future administration might be more concerned with making data available in any form, rather than making sure it’s usable by developers.
We had a very lively discussion, and for much of the evening there was a valiant attempt to make sure that we had one discussion involving everyone, rather than fragmenting into a number of side conversations.
Much of the early discussion was taken up with pipes. There was a lot of argument about whether the stated goal of Digital Britain (“2Mb/s to every household in the UK”) was correct, with some people pushing for a much higher bandwidth to “almost everyone”. More significantly there was a lot of debate about how much Government involvement should there be in this – should this be something that can simply be left to commercial providers.
There was also a lot of discussion on which parts of the Digital Britain agenda played to the strengths of UK plc. There was reasonable concern that the result of TSB funding should be more UK companies able to compete in a global market.
I argued that the technologies surrounding the web of linked data was such an area. I talked about the web of linked data as a transformation of the web, and sketched some enterprise-related examples of why it was important. I echoed some of the messages we’ve heard from the Cabinet Office about how valuable government data is in bootstrapping the data web, and emphasised the importance of publishing in linked data formats to make it easy for developers to link together different data sets in order to deliver real value to end users (individuals or businesses). I think this is an area where UK companies can compete globally, and that the activity round data.gov.uk is a great way of building a UK presence in this sector, and being in a position to sell this technology to the rest of the world in the future.
Encouragingly, I didn’t get pushed back on this at all, though we did once more get sidetracked into a discussion on whether government needed to provide the pipes down which this data would flow as well as the data itself.
Once the meeting broke up into separate discussions, in a conversation with Adam Afriyie (Conservative Shadow Minister for Innovation, Universities and Skills) I was pleased to hear that the Conservatives treat the publication of government data with just as much importance as the Labour Party. Adam explained the Conservative Party’s plans for the publication of more and more data if they take office, and clearly understood the need for this to be published in a standard form. And he clearly felt that the web of linked data was a good way to go.
So I’m at least partly reassured that linked data on data.gov.uk has a future. My only concern with all this is that the people involved are already working flat out, and a bunch of new initiatives may cause things to get dropped on the floor. So I think we still have to meet the challenge of showing that the web of linked government data can deliver real value as quickly as possible, and ensure that there’s real momentum behind this work before the election.
For whichever party wins the election there will be an opportunity to change things, and a temptation to change things even if they are working well “because we can”. My take-away from the meeting was that no-one wants to change the broad direction of publishing government data, nor even to tinker with the approach – but I’m still concerned that too many new initiatives may slow things down rather than speed them up.