I’d vote for that. Tom Watson’s digital pledges

Tom Watson MP is using his blog and Uservoice.com to work up a kind of digital manifesto – getting down in black and white a set of principles that will guide his decision making if the voters choose to return him to Parliament at the election. After a very credible, and creditable, stance in the run up to the passing of the Digital Economy Bill, he’s made a pretty good stab at it too. Check out his blog to see the discussion around his draft list.

He hits one of my bugbears fairly squarely: “I will support all measures to bring non-personal public data into the public domain“. I think a pretty important point on this one is that it should be freely available. It may sound obvious, but that’s not what’s happened in some recent attempts to open up data.

Take Tribunal judgement defaults for example. It’s great the Government made information available so that ordinary employees can find out whether their company, or one they’re thinking applying to of has a dodgy employment relations history. But management of the database has been farmed out to Registry Trust Limited (back in 1985 by Lord Hailsham). This helps get it off the public sector’s hands, and saves some costs to be sure, but in order to help the non-profit private company make a buck on the back of taking over the information, there’s an £8 a pop on searching it. Of course, that’s per speculative search – if the company comes up clean, or you want to probe a subsidiary to be sure, it’ll be another £8 please.

Check out the suggested uses that Registry Trust Limited choose to highlight on their site – it’s all about checking out employees, or vetting companies as business partners. Nothing there about empowering employees or job seekers, and for good reason. From starting as something to name and shame companies and redress a power imbalance between ordinary individuals and companies, it ends up being a boost for companies (good and bad) who can afford to open up multiple search accounts to check out individuals.

When Hailsham farmed this information out in 1985, it was analogue. Ordinary people couldn’t get hold of it anyway, so it’s easy to see why he considered closing it down, even without my usual tin foil hat on his motives. However, now the data’s digital it could be put to loads of uses empowering individuals – the nature and relevance of what’s being collated has fundamentally changed, and so has its value to society.

So my challenge to Tom is to see that not only is data made available, but that it becomes the job of government to do it themselves. Manage it in house, even if it costs more. Link it together with other datasets, so researchers can widen the picture. Make APIs so others can come up with uses that nobody even thought of yet. There’s a lot of scope for good here – and good luck to Tom in being re-elected to be one of the good people who gets to try it.

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