Public access to information

Open and linked data are critical to delivering the UK government's vision of a Big Society.

Several strands of the UK's coalition government's initiatives are impacting on the broader information agenda.  The Protection of Freedoms Bill covers a tranche of legislation including that dealing with the use of CCTV, the DNA database and also includes a proposed scaling back of the criminal record checking service. 

Earlier this week, the Cabinet Office published its consumer empowerment strategy, which includes the 'mydata' initiative, and which seeks to ensure UK consumers are better informed and protected.   The concept of Big Society, bringing new partnership models in the delivery of public services, demands information flows that are both transparent and accountable.  Most importantly, the government is placing an emphasis on the proactive disclosure of information, and on making data open and easily shared between organisations and available for third parties to mash and manipulate.   

A balanced approach

Speaking at an ISKO UK event held in London, Christopher Graham, the UK's Information Commissioner spoke about the 'ins and outs' of information rights.  His role is to ensure that an appropriate balance is reached between privacy and information freedoms.  The role of the UK's Information Commissioner's Office is to help people comply with information legislation, to adjudicate on complaints and to encourage good practice using a combination of stick and carrot.  This need to reach a balance is matched by the public's attitude to information.  In the UK the demand for greater transparency (fuelled in part by the scandal of MPs expenses), and a desire to be protected is balanced by concerns of being 'spied on' and a desire to protect personal data.   

This balanced approach to information freedoms was echoed by Carol Tullo, of the National Archives.  The Open Government Licence, which is already being used by 180 local authorities in the UK is "a marker for governments across Europe", she said. This license is an enabler of proactive release of data.  She also spoke about the Five Star Publishing scheme, suggested by Tim Berners Lee and "coming soon to a PC near you"!  This schema promotes linked data as the best approach to publishing data on the web.   

Context and meaning

Linked data is critical if we are to create real meaning from publicly available data and information.  Paul Davidson is the Chief Information Officer of Sedgemoor District Council.  He is also seconded to the Local e-Government Standards Body. Linked data will take government information to a whole new level.  Take for example a spreadsheet of air quality readings taken from across a local authority area.  Of limited interest on its own, this data could be taken to a whole new level of impact if it could be linked with external sources of data - for example health data regarding incidents of asthma.  We should aspire to much more than publishing machine readable data on our websites and seek to create real understanding.

Big Society and balanced legislation

Information legislation should support and facilitate the (appropriate) free flow of information and data.  For Charles Oppenheim (who serves on the Legal Advisory Board of the EU), some elements of information law need to be addressed, not least the inconsistency surrounding what type of data is considered 'sensitive' (our DNA profile for instance).  The challenge, as ever, is to ensure that legislation keeps abreast of technical and social change.

Open and linked data can facilitate effective decision making, encourage good practice and identify waste in hard financial times.  Local authorities are now publishers of information and should ensure that their outputs are linkable.   As the vision of a Big Society becomes clearer, an increased reliance on organisations that are not currently subject to FOI legislation means that the coverage of FOI will need to broaden (and this is currently planned, the Information Commissioner confirmed). 


Finally, Carol Tullo's comments that it is up to information and knowledge professionals to show leadership in this area is a call to action for us all.  We can help deliver a growth economy and support informed and active citizenship.  

About ISKO

The International Society for Knowledge Organization's mission is to advance conceptual work on knowledge organisation in all forms and media.  The British Chapter (ISKO UK) holds regular meetings on topical subjects and is hosting a two-day conference in London on 4-5 July with speakers from eight countries. 

Image courtesy of DazzieD on Flickr.