Public Services > Central Government

Ethical frameworks and APIs dominate open data discussion

Neil Merrett Published 20 March 2015

Labour's Chi Onwurah says ethical guidelines on data ownership will be vital to preventing another controversy in the public sector


A failure to review and set out effective ethical frameworks over the ownership of information for citizens and companies could significantly risk the potential for public sector open data innovation, the shadow cabinet minister for digital government has warned.

Labour MP Chi Onwurah said the next government must review and set out clear guides for open, personal and shared data in the form of a framework to help public and private sector organisations understand how information can be protected and exchanged to support innovation.

Speaking yesterday at an Open Data Institute (ODI) panel event focused on the future for data sharing beyond the General Election in May, Onwurah cited NHS England's delayed roll out of the controversial programme as an important example of the need for clear guidlines on using information.

"I think if we have another, then the public sector is not going to want to touch data, whether it is open or shared and that is a real danger," she said.

Onwurah said that the UK was in a "relatively good place" concerning open data commitments in the public sector, despite noting a number of "significant blockers" limiting the potential of openly available information to help support innovation in the public and private sector.

She pointed to the need for open Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to enable systems to interact with each other and providing the right architecture so organisations like some 440 local authorities around the UK would not have to start from scratch in developing public services.

Onwurah noted the architecture that enabled data and information to be shared across local and central government, as well as the private sector in some cases, was the most difficult technical challenge facing the UK at present.

Among Labour's own proposals for a digital government should it come to power later this year is the idea of individual data ownership in order to try and establish trust and encourage the public to share information that can be used to inform services going forward.

Onwurah noted that Labour planned to review the exact of implications of data ownership should it form the next government.

"The review that we would have in government would be to establish what [data ownership] does mean," she said. "What should property rights, which is perhaps what we are arguing for, what should that mean when it comes to data? I don't know the answer, but part of that answer has to be about control."

Questioned during the event as to whether individual ownership risked excluding more vulnerable people, or sections of the public less confident in the use of online technologies, Onwurah said digital intermediaries and would need to be put in place to inform and protect the public on issues of data rights.

Also speaking during the event held at the at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) in London was the Cabinet Office's director of open data and government innovation, Paul Maltby.

Maltby pointed to a two phase process of developing systems and services around open data, with government currently committed to finishing what he described as a "manual phase" of open data.

"By manual I mean that requests come in from my people and my team or others go and chase this around Whitehall, then it may be decided to release it, where it goes on to be machine reable," he said.

In looking forward, Maltby said efforts were already underway to move beyond "static datasets" in government, while addressing business calls for more reliability in open data provision. To meet these calls he said work was now focused at central and local government level on setting out the next generation of the national information infrastructure that will include APIs and agreements for timeliness and consistency in data.

"At the moment, we have got to do more to work with the community on open data, I still think you have and for everyone to go and clean up that data separately is a waste," added Maltby.

He pointed to the possibility of providing links to datasets on Github once they had been "cleaned" that could then be available for everyone as an example of current ambitions.

"I think what is really exciting is the world we are about to step into, which is machine produced open data. This is what we have got with new digital by default services starting to come on-stream across government," Maltby said.

"The opportunity to have services that are spitting out data routinely and for that data to be available across an API network within government as open data is an important part of this."

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