Opening the data

August 5, 2012

In March 2012 I reported in a post entitled “Open by design” a paper by Harlan Yu and David Robinson entitled “The New Ambiguity of Open Government“. A discussion of the paper has now appeared on the World Bank blog by Anupama Dokeniya entitled “Opening Government Data. But Why?” [A thank you to Jacques Raybaut at en.europa-eu-audience for the heads-up]. This is also even more relevant given the UK Public Accounts Committee report back so recently which was linked to and commented upon in Transparent e-gov.

Dokeniya quotes a recent blog post by Nathaniel Heller who stated that “The longer we allow ‘open government’ to mean any and everything to anyone, the risk increases that the term melts into a hollow nothing ness of rhetoric”. A similar debate occurred on the W3C list, and it is long been the case between e-government and e-governance. Heller brings in three ‘dimensions’ – information transparency, public engagement and accountability – all three of which might be absent from some ‘implementations’ of open government. He also emphasises that ‘open government’ itself is technology neutral.

The final paragraph from Dokeniya is important: “Transparency policies will achieve little if the political system does not create the incentives for officials to be sanctioned when corruption is exposed, for service providers to be penalized when poor performance or absenteeism is revealed, or for safeguards or structural reforms to be adopted when evidence of systemic governance problems emerge.” Essentially open data done well is a potential catalyst for change, any less than that it is a smokescreen around politicians, policy and the bureaucracy.


Voter ID

July 28, 2012

Having considered the use of Facebook to capture potential voter data in Social Voting, I was disappointed to find an American report that describes how their citizens are being disenfranchised due to lack of the correct identification. The paper, The Challenge of Obtaining Voter Data, may not be appropriate in the UK but still contains some salutary lessons in not what to do if you want people to vote! Written by Keesha Gaskins and Sundeep Iyer, and published by Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, at 40 pages of PDF at 1.35Mb it is a very thorough exercise.

Storm cloud

July 18, 2012

The recent stormy weather on the east coast of the USA should serve as a warning to all potential  and cloud users. The storm knocked out Google and some other providers for a time, and some of these were facilities used by government. In response the USACM, the US ACM Public Policy Council has published some guidance for US federal agencies but also a blog post extending this to state and local government. The post is entitled, slightly confusingly in my opinion, “USACM Makes Recommendations On Continuity of E-Government“.

There are two issues here in my opinion:

1. Web services and supporting applications – is there a joined-up business continuity plan between your web offering and the applications that may feed into it or from it?

2. If you have entered the cloud, is your cloud service replicated with more than one provider or does your provider ensure that it is replicated onto differing technology, on a different network, in a different area?

Local government web sites are different to central or federal in that they present multiple service opportunities to the citizen. Each one of these needs to be reviewed in terms of risk and resilience. If you put all your eggs into one Google, Amazon or other basket, is there the provision for a cut over to another location or network in the event of a disaster?

It may be that the risk is worth taking if it’s a less important application, but the business case needs to be considered from the citizens’ standpoint. Are the citizens likely to be financially challenged, as occurred when HSBC had problems in May 2012?

Counting the cost

July 14, 2012

A recent debate on the Socitm Linkedin group went back to the validity of channel shift calculation most recently raised in “Can channel shift be forecast?“. However, this has been an ongoing question for a long time as posts such as Channel accounting in 2009 will emphasise.

I continue to argue that end-to-end costs have to be assimilated, within reason, into such costings, and the major savings need to be revenue ones. A recent post on The Register revealed that 20% of the Information Commissioner’s Office budget went on IT. I wonder how many local authorities spend near that? This may be a reason why some LA’s are less able to respond in detail to some of the requests they get? Geoff Connell of the London Borough of Newham, an old acquaintance announced on the Linkedin forum that “Newham Council has saved £12M per annum so far through a major channel shift programme. Less than 40% of our customer services transactions are now carried out face to face. Over 30% go through our online self-serve portal and we have over 20,000 registered (and active) users. We have over 98% online purchases for parking permits, 30%+ for bulky items, green waste, etc, etc.”, which I wouldn’t argue with, knowing Geoff, but they have property to rationalise that will make a capital saving. There may be some revenue savings and these need to be the main component for any ‘calculator’ using the transaction cost figures that Socitm and others bandy about.

The debate will continue forever no doubt, but some of the presentations from the recent Socitm/Headstar #BPCW12 conference in Birmingham were revealed to be available at

What’s the big idea?

July 8, 2012

Yet another ‘big’ paper making ‘big’ things up around the opportunities from ‘big’ data. This time from the right-of-centre Policy Exchange who should realise that ‘big’ data ultimately brings along big government. “The Big Data Opportunity: Making government faster, smarter and more personal” (PDF, 36 pages, 1.21 Mb) is written by Chris Yiu.

There is little mention in the report of local government, which is the hard/chalk/coal face of government to the majority of the population and whilst has minimal control over its budgets thanks to ‘big’ central government, has the most to offer in terms of accountability, local democracy and the effect on people’s lives. Page 7 does highlight the requirement “that ensuring that public sector leaders and policymakers are literate in the scientific method and confident combining big data with sound judgment”, which would be something of a novelty given the tendency of politicians and their puppets to adjust data to their needs – one has only to consider WMD for a start! This is repeated on page 9 “Embracing the big data opportunity will take leadership and ethical integrity of the highest order”, to which I would ask for some real-life demonstration of it first. In also think there’s something contrary in an economist talking about ‘scientific method’.

In a similar manner, those given access to the data are expected to respect privacy, another new experience for those governing – I doubt if any citizen of this country, given the low moral compass of their leaders, would trust any with more information than they have to. This is an accepted fact when the population happily reveal to Facebook and Google data that they’d resist handing over to government. The paper, on page 13, then goes on to present data matching as an alternative to the National Identification card, as if we didn’t have legislation that clearly prevents that type of exercise (unless crime is indicated) – this is more Big Brother than big data, whatever the benefits. The author then goes on to make a number of proposals for the use of big data, along with a stylised desktop for airport management. Some of the ideas will clearly be constrained by existing legislation and data quality, but anyone who has dealt with the HMRC and their ‘credit reference agency’ will know the quality of the data, and the HMRC’s seemingly singular inability to join up their own house let alone share data with others!

As to the use of data mining to identify fraud – a quick read of The Plot Against the NHS by Colin Leys & Stewart Player would indicate that the vulnerability to fraud comes greatest when attempts to marketize services are made, this will apply to all government service not just health. A current example is the investigations being done around A4E. The issue here is not big data but the structuration of services and policy in such a manner that no auditor has the opportunity to smell the rats as they surface. The more complex systems are made, the increased likelihood of fraud and error.

Page 29 repeats the wishful mantra again – “Governments should have the utmost respect for civil liberties – and citizens themselves can and must hold their government to the highest ethical and moral standards”. Citizens should be able to trust government but recent history indicates a majority of politicians can’t be even trusted to do their own expense claims, let alone not mix with the wrong sort of journalist.

I suggest the ‘think-tank’, like some many of their brethren, get some real world experience before indulging their fantasies on the rest of us.

Cynical summary – The report is ‘sponsored’ by EMC Corporation, the recent destination of a former government CIO and a company whom I would imagine make a lot of money out of government accumulating big data.

Five star rating

July 1, 2012

The publication of the UK government ‘Open Data White Paper: Unleashing the Potential‘ on the 29 June 2012 is intended to set out how they’re “putting data and transparency at the heart of government and public services”. The claim is also to be “making it easier to access public data; easier for data publishers to release data in standardised, open formats; and engraining a ‘presumption to publish’ unless specific reasons (such as privacy or national security) can be clearly articulated.”

One of the proposals in the paper is to employ the ‘five star’ rating system and since this was outlined on here back in December 2010 under the heading ‘Government data done well’ I thought it worth mentioning that post since it had a number of links supporting the ‘five star’ scheme and related issues around open data and linked open data that it might serve as a tutorial.

Other than that I was mainly concerned with the cursory attention paid to local government. Assumptions are made that local government will follow suit, but where is the financial stimulus to do this given the current climate. Local government does not, and never had, the massive budgets in central government, nor the staff.

Can channel shift be forecast?

June 28, 2012

Goss Interactive are now offering a Channel Shift Return On Investment Calculator, apparently developed in conjunction with Plymouth University. Whilst I admire Goss’ marketing efforts in these mean times, I would suggest that any such calculator is little more than a wet finger in the air to determine the wind direction. Of course one can insert numbers of face-to-face and telephone transactions into a spreadsheet, crank the handle and be presented with what ‘in theory’ would be saved in human resources if the same transactions were done online – assuming again that:

  • All back office applications were interfaced with the web applications in a bi-directional manner? (This also assumes that the capital and revenue costs for the interfaces are built into the same spreadsheet?)
  • The same spreadsheet will also have a calculation for lack of take-up by the digitally unentitled (those without or not wishing to access electronically), the ones that will still telephone in or visit to ask questions?
  • There will be the staff costs of maintaining the web site, back office systems etc under ongoing government changes, new legislation or other factors that come out of the future?
  • That peak trend of applications that the public are willing to undertake online, without human intervention? (estimated at 30% from Canadian experience)

However, one could deny the citizen any face-to-face or telephone access to make the savings, as was done in the private sector? But look what happens when the computer plays up – NatWest, RBS, UlsterBank all open up for extra hours

Are all the costs of going digital truly in there?