I have resigned from the position as Civic Society’s lead on the third commitment – Access To Data and Information – of the Open Government Partnership plan for Scotland. My decision to do so was not reached easily.
My involvement in Open Data in Scotland goes back almost eleven years. Some seven years ago I was asked to be part of the group who came together to write Scottish Government’s Open Data Strategy which was published in 2015. The published version was a very watered down affair compared to what many of the group were looking for – with meaningful targets, measures and accountability all but removed. It did however contain one key element which we believed would compel Scottish Government (SG) to deliver what we wanted: a commitment to data being open by default. Sadly this part of the strategy has been ignored over the last six years, even if SG are fond of quoting that they have an Open Data strategy, as they did recently in the new Digital Strategy for Scotland. I see no appetite to renew it – something that is badly needed. It needs more teeth (there is no consequence to any manager in the public sector simply ignoring it), targets, measurement of progress, and it needs investment too.
Back then, in 2015, I was leading Aberdeen City Council’s Open Data efforts. Soon after I also put together and briefly led the Scottish Cities Alliance’s Data Cluster programme. Our concept was not only that we would that show the 25 non-city authorities how Open Data should be done but it would also help steer SG back on the right path in terms of Open Data – as there was by then already a perception in both civic Society and local government that there was in reality no appetite for publication of open data at a national scale (as we were seeing in other EU nations by then). The gap was wide and has widened progressively ever since. I am heartened to know of the work that SCA are currently doing to refresh the Data Cluster programme.
I was still working in local governement when the first iteration of the Scotland OGP action plan was developed. I recall reading it and thinking it missed an open goal as far as Open Data was concerned.
When I retired in 2017 I started on my MSc Data Science, and didn’t get involved in the second OGP action plan (2018-2020) until I saw the final draft to which I provided lengthy feedback in November 2018. It was suggested that join the civic Scotland part of the Open Gov Partnership. I also remember having several conversations with people in and outside of government and hearing that the only way to help fix Open Data in Scotland was to get involved in the OGP process as that was what now steered SG thinking on the topic.
I’d been involved for almost two years and on the steering group for 19 months or so.
Over the last couple of years – in anticipation of the development of the third action plan – I’ve networked heavily with Civic Society members with an interest in Open Data; I founded the Aberdeen Data Meet-ups; I created and co-ran the SODU conference; I created the Slack group for Open Data in Scotland; I’ve undertaken two full reviews of the Scottish Open Data landscape; I joined the steering group of Stirling Uni’s Data Commons Scotland programme; I lecture periodically on Open Data; I joined the board of Democracy Club, and much else besides.
A few weeks ago I forwarded a list (see below) of things to SG’s lead on Commitment three. That list had been culled from numerous conversations, meetings, online exchanges etc.
The Civic Society group are not financially rewarded for the work they do as part of OGP. Additionally all of the activity I listed above I undertook in my own time to the detriment of other things I could be pursuing. I committed so much time and effort over the years to open data in Scotland, as I see its potential for public good to be enormous economically, socially, environmentally and more.
Despite that I am more despondent now than I’ve been in the last three years. There may be a recent commitment to Open Data in the new Digital Strategy (which doesn’t promise much beyond what we saw in the Open Data Strategy 2015 in reality), yet I get the sense that there is no appetite or ambition in SG to do better or more; to really change and put effort, investment and oversight in place; to stimulate Open Data use; to engage with future entrepreneurs; to ensure that Open Data is part of the full spectrum of education; even to work with Civic Society in a meaningful way.
I joined the Partnership and agreed to lead C3 from the civic side on the basis that we could affect change in government policy and strategy, and see a new commitment from government to OD. I promised those in Civic Society that I will work to do that. I also lined up a bunch of people in Civic Society who would work to shape the next iteration of the action plan. They have, like I had, high expectations of what is to come.
The OGP is a partnership and the Civic Society group working on C3 must not rubber stamp government’s plans if they are a continuation of doing the absolute minimum it can.
Sadly the impression I have formed is that there is no commitment from SG to approach this openly and as a dialogue with Civic Society with a view to a radical change in SG’s approach to Open Data – which would mean some really stretching goals and clear commitments to measuring, monitoring and accountability for delivering Open Data across the whole public sector in Scotland.
Instead we have a suggestion from SG that they may remove what is Commitment Three altogether, and have open data and access to information threaded through other commitments. To be clear, that would be a huge step in the wrong direction. Just look at what CS wants in the list below.
So, with all of that as a background, I stepped down. I see no point in giving further time and energy to this process if all it does is provide SG with a camouflage for doing a bare minimum.
I hope that those who come along to represent Civic Society will have more luck in the process.
I also hope that in SG someone can see the the current approach is not working and that Open Data needs to be driven from a more central place as part of that Digital Strategy.
And I hope that the international OGP community can see that the approach in Scotland leaves so much to be desired.
The list collated from CS of what they want to see in a new OGP action plan
1. A new public commitment to open data by default across all of the public sector in Scotland – replacing the 2015 strategy.
– Clear targets, measures, dates with consequences of not delivering – for all public bodies
– a recognition that open by default is that all data is public unless it can’t be. ie the focus shifts to making individual cases for not opening it up.
2. An explicit link in SG’s Digital Strategy to Open Data, and in all other strategies coming out of SG.
3. A commitment to an ongoing engagement on the development and implementation of data standards (esp. where that data will be open data ); development of, and mandated use of, common identifiers in published datasets; a shift to viewing open data as infrastructure on which innovation in new services and applications takes place.
4. Scoring, comparisons and benchmarking of Scotland’s open data against other nations (a la EU Open Data Portal / Open Data Barometer) with regular reporting from SG on performance
5. Partnership with bodies such as The Data Lab, Nesta etc to advance the use of Open Data in industry and academia.
– embed use of OD in teaching of CS and DS degrees and postgrad courses
– specific focus on OD for entrepreneurship programmes
– challenges / events / programmes to stimulate re-use of data
6. Clear obligation on Local Authorities (via COSLA / SCA etc) to publish data – as well as the rest of the public sector, of course.
7. Better engagement with civic society in the re-use of open data (see 5 – last sub point )
8. A collaborative examination of the links between FOI and Open Data. Aim to get a national agreement to shift from asking for data to proactive publication as a consequence of OD by default. Support from ICO needed.
9. Parity with other parts of the UK – some examples raised so far.
– Publication by OSCAR of Charity Trustees data (published England, not in Scotland)
– Registers of Scotland land ownership data costs £££ but is free in England)
– Greater availability of LIDAR data for cities at a minimum