Non-Government Open Data Registers and Trust: Can Open Data Regulation Be Distributed/Federated?

Published on: 27 March 2018

This is a bit of a tech/data think piece and a Call to Consider by CEO Jaya Chakrabarti rather than going down the line of a formal White Paper. We want a sanity check that the problem we’re encountering is not just about us but extends quantifiably to other Open Data players in the space between Government and the Public. We're open to the idea that we're wrong.


The Dream

Government and social enterprises working together seamlessly across government and non-government data silos in order to take full advantage of both worlds. The rock solid digital infrastructure and confidence that Government can provide the market combined with the market-facing innovation that tech start-ups can implement at speed enables us to make significant leaps in progress together what we cannot achieve apart. 

The Problem

As an open data register of the Non-Government kind we have built our platform to fit snuggly with the UK Government’s digital infrastructure and standards. In our case we have done so to make it really easy to work with Companies House data in order to track the compliance of unique financial entities with the UK Modern Slavery Act. All well and good. However, our challenge has been three-fold.

Firstly as a nGODr (I love acronyms - Non-Government Open Data Register) we were not allowed access to the list of companies over £36M as held by HMRC. Fair enough - Companies House allows everyone to mine this data and so that’s pretty much what we did. After a painstaking forensics job over the last 2 years we have become the world’s largest register of companies in and out of compliance with section 54 UKMSA.

Secondly, in an effort to ensure that the data we gathered through various sources was correct we reached out to all those companies hit by the legislation. We wanted to verify that the version of the document we held (which was released on their websites in compliance with the Act) was correct, we encountered significant mistrust.

  • “You’re clearly a company selling our data to agencies!!!” (from the companies with literally no understanding of what Open Data is)
  • “You’re commercialising the Modern Slavery Act!” (an accusation from within the House of Lords with no way for us to respond, and in fact we were doing this to save the tax payer money by charging companies who could afford it. Further we charge, as Companies House does, to enable profitable companies to contribute to the running of our register and the UK Anti-Slavery Helpline, who are our charity partners. A virtuous circle if you will. We're free to companies who can't afford to pay for standard subscriptions).
  • “You’re conflicted!!!!” (this from the NGOs who are very established in the anti-slavery world, fearing that we were an evil private company, though we have still not been given any explanation of what “conflicted” actually means)

The real issue with this is that it means that only charities are able to get past first post. The second is that only those who are technically savvy can understand that it is necessary to do so. Even becoming accredited as a B-Corp (a benefit corporation, i.e. an ethical, transparency company making their money as well has having social impact) did not reduce the perception that all companies must inherently be evil (this is in part due to lack of awareness generally about the B-Corp movement in the UK).

Thirdly, the Open Database licence (ODbL) is set up to enable any organisation to do good work whilst still being a private entity, able to raise funds to invest in the technology while the Open Data remains Open in perpetuity. However the lack of understanding in the market about what Open Data is and isn't, is hindering those seeking to build sustainable business models that do not rely on taxpayer’s cash. This cannot be right nor can it be allowed to continue.

So What’s the Solution?

This may be controversial but I think that the open data landscape here in the UK needs regulation. I know from regulators themselves that they regard themselves as heavy instruments that can only achieve so much given how much time it takes to achieve regulatory powers.

In my experience Open Data creates Markets (you can quote me on that). If you look at the Open Data Institute you will see that they value it in excess of £80B. That’s not insignificant. Now allow me to extrapolate. With the right regulatory framework that figure could increase tenfold. At least. Regulation provides the market with the confidence to engage. It gives them clarity on what to expect when it goes right, what to expect if it goes wrong, and who you need to shout at in order to get the redress. With that trust and confidence, many things happen. Firstly the market feels confident to invest their time, their effort and their money. What it also does is allow more innovation to emerge alongside good customer service. Creating a solid foundation and safety net also reaches into international markets much more quickly. Having attended some of the BEIS roundtables on EU Copyright Reform as part of the Single Digital Market discussions, if we’re Brexited we actually have the ability to create an even stronger ecosystem for our data-economy companies to thrive (in the realms of how our current exemption to copyright can empower our data mining, something that would not be allowed as part of the EU). Did you know our researchers had a special exemption for text data mining when in the rest of the EU the publishers put a stop to it? Ask a lawyer to explain this better but it’s probably the only Brexit-silver-lining I can see…. (ok different can of worms - please send all the other Brexit silver linings you know through - I could do with cheering up).

Going a wee bit further, do we really need to do regulation of our digital economy and its data (personal, corporate, open or silo’d) the way it’s always been done - i.e. top down? Does it need to be one single body? Or can this be federated to enable some redundancy to emerge rather than a single point of failure? We may all be the new kids on the blockchain but this technology (and other related ones that work much faster) is maturing now. We’re talking about federated trust in so many different sectors, why not in Open Data?

My experience of regulators is limited. But I have learned much from the years that I have worked alongside them. Regulation is there to protect consumers and ensure that competition in the marketplace gives consumers the best value, products and services. The best example of this is the regulation within the financial/banking/insurance sectors. People can spend their money with the confidence that in combination with consumer rights they are relatively safe in engaging with the market.

What happens if we do nothing?

GOV.UK is arguably one of the UK’s biggest digital successes. The work by the Government Digital Service in transforming the interface between users/the electorate and UK Government has had other global Governments banging on their doors to help them achieve the same for their own countries. That’s no small feat. Doing nothing will effectively mean that other countries will be able to benefit from our innovations while we allow our own digital economy to slow down to the pace at which the market finds its feet and confidence. But given our lead, our highly attractive regulatory framework, our track record, there is only one logical next step: regulate the emerging data-driven digital economy so that it can grow really quickly. To wet your appetite, Cap Gemini reckons that the Open Data market will be worth in excess of 286 Billion Euros by 2020. That's not far away you know.

The Players/Influencers

So who do we need to get in a room together to sort this out? This is not an exhaustive list, neither is it in order of importance, but here are a handful to get us started:

  • ok, that’s us. But as the data custodians for compliance with the UK Modern Slavery Act I think that if this can work for a hybrid govtech register like us as a test case, it will work for others.
  • DCMS: The Digital Economy Act has provided a real framework to enable the UK to set out how it will grow the Digital Economy. 
  • The Open Government Network is a civil society network that pushes the Open Government Agenda across all aspects of UK Government.
  • The Government Digital Service: Our whole platform is built to GDS standards and on GDS frameworks and registers. It is because of GDS that we are able to confidently tackle a massive issue that is Modern Slavery with open data.
  • The Food Standards Agency: With a phenomenal open data programme, the FSA would most likely be one of the regulators in the distributed model I've outlined. 
  • The Open Data Institute: The organisation setting standards for open data sharing and licensing, and articulating the value that Open Data generates for our economy.
  • OpenCorporates: a private company making its cash through open corporate register data. They’re one of our extremely valued open data partners, bringing corporate transparency to the world.
  • UKRN: The UK Regulatory Network that brings all regulators together from all UK sectors. They have learnings that we could build upon when looking at a potential federated regulatory solution for the Open Data & Digital Economy.
  • The Information Commissioner’s Office: The ICO administers around the data protection legislation and holds a register of all data controllers. With the onset of GDPR and its impact on how we handle personal data as companies, it is really important that we ensure that this is included. Also, at the time of writing this blog, the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook scandal is raging in the media. Such breaches have had some of the influencers above calling for regulation. I would like this regulation to not only protect our personal data but allow our data-driven economy to thrive.

Finally: what are the next steps?

Let’s throw this open for debate. Let’s see if we can not only regulate for data protection but also to stimulate innovation and growth.  It's entirely possible there's another solution that doesn't need us to resort to regulation, but without debate we'll never get to that place. So are you in, or out? With everything that's at stake and so much to gain I don't think any of us can afford to sit this one out...

Usual Disclaimer: 

All comments/thoughts/opinions/rants are my own, and have nothing to do with the numerous boards and positions I hold or have ever held.