Open Data: How change in politics may change the Market of Data

In a previous post I have written that the open data and reform of public service initiatives are creating a market of data. Such a market is like any other market. It is very much influenced by the personal ideological background and agenda of people in command. In the particular case of the market of data, because it is both burgeoning and strongly related to public service information policies, the political decision makers are very influential. So what happens when a new Government / Administration takes command? That is what might happen in the UK in the coming days, so it is an appropriate time to elaborate on and discuss it.
As Lee Bryant wrote, from the government’s perspective there are four main reasons for doing it:

  • Transparency and accountability
  • Empower citizens to drive public service reform
  • Unlocking social and economic value (Taxpayers paid for the data)
  • Help (National) research and technology have a leading role in the next generation Web

Those objectives are very high level and consequently pretty much consensual. Chances are that the open data initiatives continue in the UK, no matter a change in Administration.

That does not mean however that a market of data is proof or resilient to politics.

At this stage, most issues surface at the initiation / adoption stage. What looks desirable in countries with a liberal and democratic tradition may well be a problem in countries with different traditions. Government transparency and accountability is a double-edged sword for governments that have – for good or bad reasons the point isn’t here really – contributed to fabricating a different image of their action and/or society than reality. These people can legitimately fear social if not political unrest after releasing open data, since they potentially open the door for enabling an adjustment between what is said and what it is, by citizens.

So if we look back at the four main reasons, we might classify them by degree of desirability by both liberal and democratic governments and less or non liberal and democratic governments.
Desirability by type of Government

If no termination is foreseeable, changes may however happen at lower levels or on different grounds.

If the objectives are consensual, the practicalities of implementing them are subject to change depending on the personal ideological background and agenda of people in command. To illustrate the point, one may refer to the difference of understanding between Conservatives and Christian Democrats in Europe or between Republicans and Democrats in USA of what is the role of State in relation to a “market”. One can anticipate potentially changes at the following levels or grounds:

  • Transparency and accountability
  • Empowerment of citizens to drive public service reform
  • Unlocking social and economic value
  • Help (National) research and technology have a leading role in the next generation Web
  • Influence of the government on the issue of the Market of Data
  • Change in the locus of decision making

Transparency and accountability

The process of selecting the data make available on open data platforms has been questioned by many. Behind the availability argument, a political agenda has a clear role to play as it is always important for a government to look nice. Shortly after a period of transitions between two parties at government, it is not rare to see new data popping in to justify future policies and undermines the previous team.
A possible consequence of a change in government may therefore be a change in the process of selecting the data made available.

Empower citizens to drive public service reform
What does “empowering” mean? It’s good to have people manipulating data to present different perspectives, but then what? Is there any channel inside the public administration to effectively make an impact? Do we rely on (social) media to relay, broadcast and thus lobby for a change? Appreciation of anticipated effectiveness may vary between different people.
A possible consequence of a change in government may therefore be a change in the feed-back process implemented to effectively reform the public service.

Unlocking social and economic value
The current preference for marginal cost in the UK is and remains a political choice, beyond the demonstration of the authors of the report. Possibility to revert to profit maximizing exists, depending on the understanding of economical value and added value to “added value” and “refined”. A marginal cost policy lowers the barrier of entry to the market, so that the market is made of actors smaller in size and bigger in numbers. Bet is made on increased volume of transactions and long term or indirect returns. A full cost policy keeps the barrier high so that the market is made of fewer yet bigger actors. That is almost the same situation as the one existing before the reform of public service information.
A possible consequence of a change in government may therefore be returning to the previous prevailing situation.
Alternatively, some may want to review the licensing models as a way to impact the commons. The current policies facilitate the accessibility and re-usability of public service information, creating de facto a knowledge commons. Depending on the licensing models that one enforces, possibility exists to create enclosures at the next level, by granting an exclusive right to license to or charge prohibitively others to use and remix. That would be the case by adopting dominant copyright and licensing models, like the one contained the US Millennium Act. A consequence is that innovation would happen at level one, but may potentially be prevented further. The fair use of the Commons is a complex issue that resonates on the digital landscape too.

Help (National) research and technology have a leading role in the next generation Web
Helping research and technology goes beyond advocacy and dataset standards, i.e. what we visibly get right now. It is known that research is siloed, as bridges are missing between public and private labs. The French government for instance was forced to create clusters to address that matter, and despite the induced cooperation remains difficult. How to effectively contribute to national benefit is a difficult topic. Findability and accessibility of datasets, by-products and skills, are significant matters that are poorly addressed at this stage, as I have already said there
Equally important is that initiating countries admittedly sit on a mass of data thanks to amazing development, stable and central governments and early attention to “heritage” preservation. However, digital is borderless – time matters, but not space – so it may well be that “not so national” research and technology entities that take advantage of open data initiatives.
A possible consequence of a change in government may therefore be finding a different equilibrium between those two seemingly contradicting issues.

Influence of the government on the issue of the Market of Data

In the USA, open data have flourished at State level before the Federal Administration embarks and plays a catalyst role. Likewise, the United Kingdom plays an important role of catalyst and example in Europe that usefully supplements the European Commission. The European Commission is effective in passing laws and directives that impact lower level of administration. States are effective in operationalising concretely those laws and directives, hence the importance of the role of the UK. However, States have enough autonomy to implement directives far later, preventing the single market and impeaching the European Commission. The Conservative Party is a long time “eurosceptic” and recently confirmed that with a strong position. Such a change would definitely has the consequence of the United Kingdom ceasing to play a role of catalyst at European level, directly impacting the evolution of the market of data not only in the UK but also on the Continent.

Change in the locus of decision making
There is a possibility that the locus of decision making changes. Currently in the UK, the OPSI is an entity of the National Archives with broad responsibilities. A new government may decide to have it closer. And for that, as France currently demonstrates, there is no particular need to formally change structures. One simply needs to double certain positions by enriching the Premier’s team.

Base of the Market of Data
A significant driver of the market of data is the reform of public service. It is a shared agenda among political parties as broadly understood as way to reduce costs and boost effectiveness. Now, when it comes to reform of public service, different political parties have different understandings. Classically, the Conservatives or Republicans understand “reform of public service” by reduced expenses, i.e. less manpower and budgets, while Christian Democrats, Socialists and Democrats understand it has maintaining manpower but focusing on co-ordination and transaction costs efficiency. How this will affect the Open Data initiatives and thus the Market of Data is a matter of a) costs of the current initiative and 2) the balance between costs and expected gains.
With these elements in mind, a possibility exists that the scope is being changed by:
Transforming public administration bodies into “trading funds” (to use English terminology), as those public, not-for-profit entities are supposed to be financially autonomous. Such a policy may well increase the commons on which the Market of Data is being built.
Pushing into the private sector certain trading funds. Such a policy may well reduce the commons on which the Market of Data is being built as, being fully for profit, some may well re-open the charging policy case by questioning marginal costs in favor of cost recovery or profit maximizing.

Shifting Base of the Market of Data

I am at the junction of management, technology & culture, to maximize knowledge work & make organizations more competitive. I'm passionate about knowledge management, communities of practice, enterprise social computing (aka enterprise 2.0) and corporate governance in a knowledge economy. I fancy designing collaboration and knowledge sharing related digital tools. I am currently the Director, Collaborative Development at the Ops Division of L'Oreal and based in Paris. I was previously in Singapore and Hyderabad as Director Asia at Revevol, an international cloud computing broker specialised in Google Enterprise products and related services, Associate Director of the Digital Division of the National Library Board of Singapore and before a consultant at Headshift, a social business design consultancy now part of the Dachis Group. I have been working on international network and community management, designing and implementing CRM, reporting and community tools. I have given some lectures around KM at EM Lyon, a European leading Management School, and talks at both KM Singapore and KM Asia. I participated in the we are smarter than me initiative as chapter moderator. I have been a member of the Executive Committee of the Information & Knowledge Management Society of Singapore (IKMS) for two years. I graduated a PhD in Management, while working in a full-time position and with the kind support of Claude Roche (France Telecom, previously at ENST), Jean-Claude Moisdon (CGS Mines) and Philippe Lorino (ESSEC). When not working, I can be found back-packing mostly in Latin America and Asia. The shift from muscle sweat to brain juice as the main factor of performance creates some fundamental changes in the way management is to be taught and practised. Topics like knowledge management (KM), communities of practice (CoP), enterprise social computing (Enterprise 2.0) are the ones that participate in crafting the new required management practices. But they only are one part of the solution. Topics like measurement and metrics, behaviours and authority, representation and organisation of the group also have to be questioned and rejuvenated. This blog is about all this and we can summarise this as 'managing in a knowledge economy'. It displays ideas of my own and not the ones of my employers, past and present.

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