Government launches Open Data Institute (updated)

By Chris Middleton
22 May 2012 View Comments
Tory Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude

The government’s Open Data policy has taken a major step forward with the formal announcement of the Open Data Institute (ODI – theodi.org).

Further reading

The institute is a new state-backed organisation that aims to provide an “incubator environment” to join up business, the public sector, academic institutions and developers and exploit the commercial potential of open data, while also working towards sustainable policy.

Whitehall's ODI strategy was outlined in November 2011, but last month the embryo organisation secured funding from the government's Technology Strategy Board, which may amount to £10m over the next five years.

The ODI is to develop a broad programme of events and strategies, including training open data entrepreneurs and backing innovative start-ups, and will be co-directed by two of open data's leading proponents, Professors Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Nigel Shadbolt.

"The institute will connect together lots of people excited about open data,” said Berners-Lee. “Those who produce it, with those who want to put it to use in all sorts of fields and every kind of industry.”

Announcing the institute, Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude (pictured) confirmed what has long been implicit in government policy – the creation of what Computing has termed "the Data Bank of England": "We don't just want to lead the world in releasing government data. Our aim is to make the UK an international role model in exploiting the potential of open data to generate new businesses and stimulate growth,” he said.

Universities and Science Minister David Willetts added: “We recognise the economic and social benefits of open data. That’s why the government has been at the forefront of the open data movement. We are making more official information available than ever before.

"Data on areas like procurement, the quality of care homes and crime rates are already being used to provide innovative new services. Now, the Open Data Institute will support businesses that want to use data in imaginative new ways for everyone’s benefit. This will release commercial potential, driving new forms of economic growth and new benefits to individuals.”

Talk of care provision is of particular interest, given the publication this week of the Department of Health's information strategy, with its suggestion of the commercialisation of private data, and its sharing among ad hoc networks of public and private organisations. 

That said, pharmaceutical research and medical advancement have always been focused on gathering open data and identifying trends, in order to provide care to specific people.

Talk of crime is another flashpoint for controversy, given the Metropolitan Police's new programme of examining data pulled from the mobile devices of suspects (rather than people who have been charged with a crime), and the increased use of private companies to supplement reduced police numbers.

The key question, then, is what is open and can be interrogated for everyone's benefit, via organisations such as the ODI (anonymised datasets about trends and behaviours, for example) and what is private, such as named individuals and their networks, contacts and personal choices.

Some councils and public bodies, including police forces, are already sharing data about named citizens across local boundaries in shared services centres – often in partnership with private suppliers – with the aim of meeting the government's reduced spending targets.

In some cases, what they are doing may be illegal. In other cases, legal grey areas seem to be ever expanding. 

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