On January 12 the UK government announced plans for the creation of a Public Data Corporation. which would “bring together Government bodies and data into one organisation and provide an unprecedented level of easily accessible public information and drive further efficiency in the delivery of public services”.
In describing the case for its creation, the Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude said that
“A Public Data Corporation will bring benefits in three areas. Firstly and most importantly it will allow us to make data freely available, and where charging for data is appropriate to do so on a consistent basis. It will be a centre where developers, businesses and members of the public can access data and use it to develop internet applications, inform their business decisions or identify ways to run public services more efficiently. Some of this work is already taking place but there is huge potential to do more. Secondly, it will be a centre of excellence where expertise in collecting, managing, storing and distributing data can be brought together. This will enable substantial operational synergies. Thirdly, it can be a vehicle which will attract private investment.”
Although there is some skepticism around this new entity and what it would accomplish, I have to admit that the idea is intriguing.
Open data creates the same ambiguity we have seen in the past around open source. “Open” does not mean “free”, and putting a reasonable price tag on certain data sets to ensure their quality and trustworthiness is not wrong in principle. After all, apart from few examples, have we seen extraordinary results from the wealth of open (and free) data made available in the US, in the UK and other jurisdictions?
When I play the cynical, I always get comments reminding me that change in the public sector takes time. Well, but how long will it take before people, developers, politicians get bored with trying to prove the value of open data and give up?
In my criticism of the US Open Government Directive I have said many times that there are little incentives for agencies to open data that is really mission-critical to them. On the other hand, in absence of other motivations, why not money? Why not exploring the human aspiration to make money, why not putting greed at the service of open government?
It might sound counterintuitive, but it is not. Open government needs fuel to sustain itself, to cover its costs, to gain time to prove its value. As the Latins said, “pecunia non olet”, money has no smell. If a Public Data Corporation can finally help open government take off rather than slide into oblivion, so be it.