There’s something almost unnerving about the launch of a government website getting so much positive coverage. But today’s been data.gov.uk‘s big day, and everyone seems to agree it’s a jolly good thing. For now.
James Crabtree’s piece for Prospect magazine hails it as ‘a tale of star power, serendipity, vision, persistence and an almost unprecedented convergence of all levels of government’. The New Statesman says it’s ‘a far more radical project than it first appears… a clear break with the closed, data-hugging state of the past.’ We’re all getting quite excitable, aren’t we?
Me? I’m just looking back over posts on this blog last year: this one about the need to make moves on data release (including an excerpt from my resignation letter from ONS), and this one on Tim Berners-Lee’s appointment. I’ll confess, I got something wrong in that latter post; I wrote that it was ‘probably’ a cult-of-celebrity, hands-off appointment. Looks like that wasn’t entirely accurate. Sorry.
This has been a long time coming. Too long. Shamefully long. But there is still good reason to be excited. Amid all the talk about bicycle accidents, you may have missed the news that OPSI is working on simplified T&Cs for reuse of the site’s data:
These terms and conditions have been aligned so that they are interoperable with any Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Licence. The terms and conditions are also machine readable meaning that the licence is presented and coded in such a way that applications and programs can access and understand the terms and conditions too.
This is the first major step towards the adoption of a non-transactional, Creative Commons style approach to licensing the re-use of government information. The new model will replace the existing Click-Use Licence. We are working towards the launch of the new licence model by the end of May 2010.
Don’t overlook the significance of this move. This is government adopting someone else’s standard, for something they have historically claimed as their own. The Click-Use Licence is actually pretty liberal… but it’s scary.
This simple shift will take us from this:
Unless otherwise specified the information on this site is covered by either Crown Copyright, Crown Database Right or has been licensed to the Crown. It is your responsibility to clear any other rights. You are encouraged to use and re-use the information that is available on and through this site freely and flexibly, with only a few conditions…
to this (or something very like it). We, the citizens of the web, know what Creative Commons means: we don’t need to look it up, we won’t need a dictionary, and we won’t need a lawyer. Good things will happen as a direct result.
I’ve seen a few ripples of excitement at the news that ABCe is to act ‘as a sole third party to independently validate the figures generated by an audit of government websites, in the largest project of its kind to date’, with ‘COI [to] publish comprehensive figures on the cost quality and use of government websites by June 2010’. Not exactly a surprise though, as this was in the COI document on Improving Government Online, published in March.
The exciting part, I suppose, is the fact that the figures are to be published. I wonder how. If Sir Tim really is to lead a push to make government publish its raw data, wouldn’t this make an excellent ‘best practice example’?
When Andrew Stott was appointed Director of Digital Engagement, I commented that it wasn’t the ‘rock star’ appointment many of us had been led to expect. Well, the ‘rock star’ appointment came through yesterday, with the news that Sir Tim Berners-Lee as the government’s ‘expert advisor on public information delivery’. The Director position required evidence of having ‘run a public facing web site of significant size’: well, I guess TBL qualifies, having run the entire web at one point. 🙂
This is meant to send a loud and clear signal to the civil service: raw data now. And I couldn’t agree more; see this post, for example, from 2008 about ‘API-first publication’, in the context of the 2011 Census. But I think it’s more about how that signal gets sent.
The Cabinet Office press release says:
He will head a panel of experts who will advise the Minister for the Cabinet Office on how government can best use the internet to make non-personal public data as widely available as possible. He will oversee the work to create a single online point of access for government held public data and develop proposals to extend access to data from the wider public sector, including selecting and implementing common standards. He will also help drive the use of the internet to improve government consultation processes.
It reads like a rather hands-off, committee-based kind of role. And whilst that wouldn’t be a bad thing in itself, I wonder if it’s what The Machine really needs from him. What’s the question, to which ‘Sir Tim Berners-Lee’ is the answer?
I don’t think we particularly need the advice on standards; and I don’t know that TBL will be able to tell (checks the post-reshuffle situation) Tessa Jowell how to organise data publication processes inside the typical Whitehall department. But what he will be able to do is intimidate persuade those people who always seem to block the initiatives which have already gone before. He may have more success saying the exact same things many of us have already been saying for some time, because of who he is.
Stuart Bruce, who knows a thing or two about PR / technology / the Labour Party responded thus on Twitter: ‘Opening access to government data YES! Well done. But Tim Berners-Lee? Isn’t that just like Sugar, yet more cult of celebrity.’ Maybe so. Probably so, in fact. But it may be exactly what we need.