Speech

Open data: Matt Hancock speech

Minister for the Cabinet Office Matt Hancock sets out some guiding principles on open data in a speech given in Berlin.

Read 'Matt Hancock speech'

Thank you to the Konrad Adenauer Foundation for hosting me to speak today. The Konrad Adenauer Foundation has done excellent work to build foundations between Germany and the UK for 50 years. It’s a great honour to be here.

(Guten Tag. Wir bedanken uns bei der Konrad Adanauer Stiftung, die mich heute als Gast eingeladen hat, hier zu sprechen. Seit fünfzig Jahren macht die Stiftung ausgezeichnete Arbeit, um solide Grundlagen zwischen Deutschland und England zu schaffen.)

And for me, there’s something very special about coming to Germany to talk about open data, because this country was the birthplace of a much earlier data revolution.

In about 1450 a Mainz goldsmith – Johannes Gutenberg – perfected the mechanical printing press.

Gutenberg’s process radically cut the cost of copying information.

And because the process itself could be easily copied, the number of printed texts in Europe exploded: from virtually none in 1450 to around 20 million by 1500.

The result of that technological improvement was the birth of mass literacy, the rise of mass culture, and ultimately, the end of feudal society.

Now, with the shift from paper to pixel, the cost of storing and copying information has once again fallen dramatically, to almost zero.

We are already in the very early stages of the next data revolution.

Its contours are visible in everything from smart energy, to driverless cars, to the sharing economy.

And just as government had a key role to play in the rise of print – repealing censorship laws and developing the principle of copyright – so too we have the power to unlock the awesome power of data.

It’s a whole new area of challenging policy and challenging political questions:

  • how to protect privacy
  • how to enable improvements
  • how to keep data secure
  • how to unlock its value

The UK has gone further down this path than most other governments around the world.

So today I want to set out some guiding principles on open data, based on the lessons that we’ve learnt and where we can go next.

Usability

The first principle is that openness on its own is not enough; data also has to be usable.

In the early years, our UK data strategy was deliberately focused on volume. We wanted to get as much data as possible out into the open.

Today we’ve published over 20,000 datasets on our government data portal.

This was a great way of building early momentum.

Government officials are trained to ask: where’s the evidence base, what’s the justification for doing this?

But with open data, the only way you can assemble an evidence base is by publishing it first.

For example, some were sceptical about the idea of crime maps: interactive maps showing recent crimes in a given area.

No one would be interested in local crime figures, they said.

In fact, the website was so popular with the public that it crashed on the day it went live. Now people use it for all sorts of reasons. Open transport data makes it easier and quicker to navigate our cities. Open education data helps people choose options and drive up standards in schools.

So quantity does matter. The more data you publish, the more evidence you’ll find of its usefulness, and that’s critical for changing attitudes within government.

But what we’ve learnt is that quality, reliability and accessibility are just as important.

Indeed, open data that isn’t usable isn’t really open at all.

Think back to the printing press.

It transformed Europe not just because printing was faster than copying out by hand, but because books were printed in vernacular languages not just in Latin.

Today the modern equivalent of printing in Latin is publishing a key dataset as a PDF.

So our focus now is on developing common data standards for use across government.

On auditing our data, so we can be sure of its accuracy and integrity.

And on modernising our data infrastructure, replacing competing and often contradictory datasets held by different government departments with a series of high quality data registers that can be used across the public sector.

Government as a consumer of open data

Yet the best way of all to guarantee to the usefulness of open data is if we as governments use it ourselves.

And this brings me onto my second principle: open data should be treated not as an optional extra – something that’s ‘nice to have’ but inessential – but rather as a key driver of public services reform.

When we started to publish open data in the UK we thought of it mainly as a tool of accountability, a way of being more transparent about where taxpayers’ money was going and how well it was spent.

Government using our own data, ‘hundefutter’, or dogfooding as it is called in English, also ensures that we publish high quality data because we know what it feels like to use it. This is taken from a US Chief Executive of a dog food company who ate a can of his own product to prove its quality.

And it absolutely does deliver greater accountability.

When we started publishing travel data, for example, we found that senior officials became much happier to book themselves into economy class on long-haul flights.

But what we’ve learnt since is that open data can also be used to improve the effectiveness of public services.

Deaths in coronary artery surgery dropped by 21% after publication of surgeons’ performance data.

Publishing contract data allowed one of our officials to find £4 million in savings in just 10 minutes, simply by spotting that several government departments had all been buying the same expensive report.

Openly available demographic data has been used by government agencies in everything from forecasting pressure points in doctors’ surgeries, to finding the best locations for defibrillators.

And this is before you even get to the entirely new services that have been built by innovators outside government using government data.

Travel apps, property valuation software, a home swap service, food hygiene ratings for online takeaway platforms, footfall simulations for retail businesses, a service to check whether your second-hand bike’s been stolen – these are just a small fraction of the applications that have so far been engineered by third parties using government data.

Our focus is on making sure that every part of government, at every level, understands how data can help us achieve our objectives, whether as consumers or compilers of open data.

This is all based on a very clear principle: government data is a public asset and should be used for the public benefit.

Collaboration

But we can’t do it alone, and this brings me onto my third principle: being open to collaboration – and challenge – from the wider community.

In the UK we’ve worked closely with the Open Data Institute, an internationally recognised research and education body, co-founded by 2 of our most eminent data scientists, Sir Nigel Shadbolt and Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

They play a dual role: holding us to account for delivering our open data programme, and connecting us to the leading businesses and innovators progressing this field.

We’ve found them incredibly valuable partners:

  • in identifying the datasets with the greatest potential
  • helping to demonstrate the business case for the release of those datasets
  • as an incubator for the start-ups which go on to use them

But as well as collaboration within countries, we can also benefit from collaboration between them.

Open data is a powerful weapon in the fight against cross-border crimes like fraud, corruption and money-laundering.

By working together and standardising our approach, we can compare more data across borders, design better policies and make it harder for crime to evade detection.

Trust

Data is power, which is why governments have traditionally hoarded it. But even in open form it must still be handled responsibility.

And this brings me onto my fourth principle, which is trust.

Citizen trust must be at heart of the open data agenda.

If the first duty of government is to keep citizens safe, then the first duty of a digital government is to keep citizens’ data safe.

We will only realise the full benefits of an open, data-driven economy if we can show people that their personal data is safe, secure, and handled with utmost care.

So one of the most important things we can do as a government is develop a strong ethical framework – in partnership with civil society – so policymakers and data-scientists can be sure that they’re getting this right.

This is a key priority for the UK.

Yet far from being in conflict, more openness and better security actually go hand in hand.

Both require effective data management: knowing exactly what you own, cutting out duplication and making sure it’s properly audited.

And both require a clear focus on data integrity: making sure that data can’t be changed or corrupted.

On this, as on so much else, we are committed to working closely with our European partners to secure that trust: on the successor to Safe Harbour, so companies can safely transfer data to third parties outside the EU.

And on an EU data protection package that protects the rights of citizens while, crucially, supporting innovation.

So these are my principles for living the open data revolution.

Make it usable, make sure that government itself is a user, collaborate, and put citizen trust front and centre, remembering always that data paid for by the citizen belongs to the citizen.

Conclusion

With half of Berlin closed up and walled off for nearly 40 years, this city knows a lot about the value of openness.

Now we must bring down the wall on government data, returning to citizens what is rightfully theirs, using it to solve age-old problems and unlock brand new possibilities.

Unleashing the free flow of information, innovation and ideas in the service of human progress.

It won’t be easy, it will take time, effort, patience and debate, but we in the UK are looking forward to working with you in Germany to make it happen.

Published 10 December 2015