Month: December 2016

Make data great again

Data is becoming increasingly important to our societies. We live in an age of data abundance and, without many of us realising, data has become a new type of infrastructure and a critical one at that. The age of data abundance has led to brilliant new services and can help our societies tackle challenges such as climate change and population growth, but it also creates risks to privacy and concentrations of power.

Societies need to be able to debate what this age of data abundance means for them. People need to make decisions about the relationship between individuals, communities, societies and data. We need to pick a future vision for our relationship with data and then make steps towards it. Many governments and societies are having this debate now.

In my job I put forward the Open Data Institute’s position on those decisions while also trying to encourage a more public debate. I want a debate because I, and the lovely people I work with, want the decision to be made by societies around the world.

To make this debate as broad and informed as possible, I need what I say to be understandable by as many people as possible. I try to use plain language and frequently test new language and concepts to see if they are understandable. Sometimes I test things through tweets or blogs, like this one, at other times by talking with people from differing backgrounds and perspectives.

By testing, listening and learning I have made some of the language more accessible but I’ve also realised that something was more important than I first thought: politics. Both my politics and that of others.

Let me try and explain.

Choices about data

Sometimes people say they want to help people make better choices about data. I did that a few times in this blog about an open future for data.

I was talking about the ideas in that blog with a left-wing British politican who stopped me mid-sentence and asked if I was a Blairite nowadays. No, I replied. “Then why are you using the language of Blair’s choice agenda?”, they asked.

image copyright the BBC. Taken from a blog stating that the comedy show Yes (Prime) Minister, was the most cunning political propaganda ever conceived

Further testing of the language caused another person to recoil and suggest that if I kept talking about choices I might be accused of being a secret Thatcherite pushing the theory of public choice. Hmm….

I’d used the word ‘choice’ because I thought it was plain language but it was clear that the decision risked putting in place a political barrier for some of the other ideas in the blog. This is a problem.

Data is political

When thinking about and debating technology and data with other technologists it can be easy to fall into a trap of thinking that every decision can be based on empirical evidence, that there is a single right answer and that we can make that right answer a reality by designing and building the right technology. This is nonsense.

In our debates about data we need to decide issues of access, ownership, regulation and the relationship between citizens and the state. These are political decisions.

Whilst we might have individual opinions about data we need a state and legal system to help put decisions into practice. States will allow technologists to innovate and try things out but there comes a time when existing legislation will be more strongly applied or new legislation will be put in place as society’s needs change. This happened and continues to happen with road traffic, it will happen with data.

By broadening the debate we are helping that decision to be made democratically. Democracy might have seemed under strain in some countries in 2016 but as Churchill said:

Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time

To put it more simply politics and democracy is important and data, as with most things, is political.

Words already carry political meaning

The “white heat of technology” makes me think of Harold Wilson and the 1960s UK Labour party. Because of my political history I have positive feelings about the phrase despite the speech being followed by the scrapping of several high-profile technology projects. Image copyright PA.

Words are a tool political people use to reach our hearts. Sometimes those words are a catchy slogan. At other times it’s a frame: a guiding metaphor or image for a political argument.

Political slogans and language are designed to appeal to a group of people, build on existing beliefs and make them choose a particular path.

Some words carry a particular meaning in the present because they have been used in a political context in the past. Marx said it more poetically:

The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

The word “choice” resonated amongst some people involved in British politics that I spoke to because of those traditions and their political history. It will have bought back nightmares for some and heavenly dreams for others.

Data is not about left or right wing politics

In economic terms each of these cakes is rivalrous: only one person can eat them. Cake is not like data, multiple people can use data at the same time. Picture of cake by Hani AlYousif, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Our societies and political systems are used to making political decisions about many types of resources, for example oil or water, but data has different qualities to the physical resources that are embedded in our political systems, debates and legislation.

To give two regularly used examples: data is non-rivalrous, unlike a piece of cake many people can use data at the same time, and data benefits from network effects, it becomes more valuable as more people use and maintain it.

These differences are one of the reasons the team at the Open Data Institute talk about data as analogous to roads:

Data is infrastructure. Just like roads. Roads help us navigate to a location. Data helps us make a decision.

The “data is roads” analogy breaks people out of the traditional mindset. It helps open their minds to thinking differently.

I think that, as with the web, these different qualities mean that a closed-open axis is a more useful way of thinking than the traditional left and right-wing political axis.

But it will be harder to get people to think about the decisions along that closed-open axis if our words and ideas cause them to think of old left and right wing political battles.

Take back control of data

Data has many other different qualities to other resources. One that is becoming increasingly evident and important is that data is sometimes about identifiable people, sometimes it isn’t and sometimes it’s a bit complicated.

Much of the current debate about data is dominated by personal data: the stuff which is about identifiable people. Many people believe that there is an asymmetry of power and privacy as data about us is controlled by governments and corporations.

Tav Kotka, the Estonian Chief Information Officer, at MyData 2016 in Helsinki. Watch the full video.

Tav Kotka, the Chief Information Officer of Estonia, recently gave a talk in which he broached the idea of adding a fifth freedom to the EU’s existing four freedoms for free movement of goods, workers, services and capital. The talk was mostly about personal data and the concept of personal data stores that could allow individuals to control how data about them is used.

Whilst I agree that more personal control over personal data is important the talk bought up memories of Margaret Thatcher and my teenage political nightmares. The talk did not mention society’s need to access and use that data. Taking back control of data by giving control to individuals misses out the challenges of digital inclusion and the role of other important parts of society like families, communities and nations. Different levels of control, rights and responsibilities are likely to need to given to these different groups. To give just one example vital medical research and national statistics need to use large amounts of personal data, this can’t be neglected or left solely to the decisions of individuals.

But, as I realised, this time I was the one allowing my political history to do the interpretation for me and I was the one who wasn’t listening to the underlying argument. Tav Kotka was using language that built on his political history while talking in English to a Finnish audience. Even though I work for a global organisation my initial reaction was from a UK perspective. My bad.

The political debate about data is happening now

The EU is currently discussing complex concepts such as data control and data ownership through the free flow of data initiative. Major geopolitical organisations, like the EU, can have a large impact on countries outside their membership, the UK government has committed to following current EU data protection regulation after it exits the EU. That EU debate involves politicians from multiple countries, each with their own rich histories and perspectives. There are many other debates in countries around the world.

If you want to help build a great future for data then as well as building new services you may want to get involved in either this or other multinational, national and local debates.

But if you do, remember to think about politics: both other people’s politics and your own. That way you will be best placed to help people think about the decisions not in terms of traditional left and right-wing politics but instead in terms more suited to the different challenges and possibilities of data.

Words from leasehold and commonhold reform APPG

Approximate words spoken at the meeting of the the UK Parliament’s All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on residential leasehold and commonhold. The meeting was chaired by Jim Fitzpatrick MP and Sir Peter Bottomley MP. There were 60–70 people in the room: MPs, Peers, conveyancing firms, big homebuilding companies and people suffering under bad leasehold terms.

Yes it’s 900 years away but why should anyone produce or sign a contract that commits them to spend this? (source: Telegraph)

I spoke after Patrick Collinson from the Guardian, who has written extensively about leaseholds in England and Wales and the issues some leaseholds cause for people; Bob Bessell of Retirement Security; and Phillip Rainey QC a specialist in property litigation and expert in leaseholds.

Phillip discussed various policy options to tackle the challenges. The options includes banning ground rents or limiting how much they could increase in value and many other subtle tweaks.

I then had 5 minutes.

Hello, thank you for inviting me. I’m from the Open Data Institute (ODI). You may not have heard of us. (murmers of agreement)

We were founded 4 years ago by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor the web, and Sir Nigel Shadbolt. Our CEO is Jeni Tennison, she apologises for not being here. So do I as I’ve ended up creating an all-male panel. That’s bad.

We are global. We connect, enable and inspire people to innovate with data. Or “to get stuff done that make things better by being more open” as I sometimes say.

I am not a housing or leasehold specialist, my job is to get data to people who need it. Leasehold Knowledge Partnership are part of our current UK startup programme. They’ve been helping us understand the problems in leasing, we’ve been helping them understand whether more data can help.

At the ODI we think of data as a new form of infrastructure. It has become essential infrastructure without us realising it.

Like most physical infrastructure – for example roads – data creates most value when it is as open as possible while respecting privacy.

When data is open and available for anyone to use it is easier for people to use it to make decisions and solve problems.

Take leaseholds. Let’s imagine if more information was open while respecting the privacy of homeowners.

  • People expect easy access to data in the web age. Many homebuyers use sites like RightMove and Zoopla as they look for a home. Opening up leasehold data would enable those services to help people make an informed decision. For example they could compare terms with other properties, leasehold or not, in the area and see what’s reasonable. Some of the cases Patrick mentioned happened because people lacked information when buying a home.

  • Conveyancers and estate agents would have access to more data too. They could get things done faster and give better advice to homebuyers.
  • Researchers would be able to model the market; help people understand how it is working and suggest improvements
  • Legislators would be able to get better information about problems, where legislation is needed or where soft power could be used to influence things
  • With better access to data government could test a policy idea, like the ones Phillip suggested, in a region before deciding whether to roll it out nationally

Much of this data is available but it is locked away. In government offices, in the offices of house building firms, in law firms or in contracts held by leaseholders and freeholders.

Some of our big public registries and institutions – things like the Land Registry, Ordnance Survey, the Met Office — were created to make this type of information available to people who need it but it feels like they haven’t adapted to changing times and 21st century needs.

Getting this data open can take time and cost money. Not that much, technology can be cheaper than some people might tell you. But getting the data open and using it to change markets, like leasehold, can also affect business models. That’s usually more significant.

We need to support those organisations to change their business models; move to a future where we have data infrastructure that is as open as possible while respecting privacy; and help meet society’s 21st century needs. That might mean they also need to help open up data held outside government.

In closing I’d ask both the members of the APPG and all of the leasehold experts in the room to think about the power of the web, what people expect in the modern age and how the tools and techniques of the web and data can help build a better housing market. One that can reduce the number of cases like those that Patrick Collinson has written about over the last few months.

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After the various speeches questions were asked by people in the room. The questions were from a more diverse group of people than the the all-male panel (grr!).

I was asked whether there was enough data available for someone in Ellesmere Port to get a reasonable view on whether their leasehold flat will be worthless in 10 years time. I’m checking that today.

Someone else raised the issue of freehold management companies surprising people with unnecessary administration fees — for example £250 for a simple bit of paperwork that is necessary if the homeowner wants to sell their home. That’s an issue my wife and I are well aware of having just sold our leasehold flat in London. We plan to blog on how data helped and where some data was missing.

Someone else asked whether we knew if the problem with leaseholds was bigger than in the 1970s. The answer from the panel was a bit vague but Phillip Rainey raised an important point. He said that the problem was getting worse because lawyers were producing new tighter leasehold clauses that benefitted the freeholder. He said that lawyers used the web to share these new clauses so they were all getting better in a way that made the situation worse for leaseholders.

You see technology can be used for good and bad and — as a very wise person once said — knowledge is power.

To help level out power imbalances we need to share the knowledge and the skills to use it with everyone.

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After these questions the event was closed by Peter Bottomley who discussed next week’s leasehold reform debate in Parliament and how he intends to name names.

{Update 22 December: the Hansard transcript of the debate is now up}

They don’t get it

Blackpool football club is in a terrible state. Thousands of fans are boycotting the club until the owners, the Oyston family, go. We know that if we don’t get the Oystons out then they will keep damaging lives and could destroy the club.

Image copyright Reuters, snipped from that terrible excuse for a paper The Sun.

The reason we boycott

The boycotts are not about money. Yes, there is a wasted opportunity of a £90m windfall from Blackpool’s recent season in football’s top division and much of that windfall has been loaned from the club to other companies rather than spent on football. The terrible waste of that money is damaging the club but that is not the reason we boycott.

The boycotts are also not about being a laughing stock as the club fell 3 football divisions in 5 years and couldn’t even put out a full squad at the start of the 2014 season. The Oystons are currently in a legal battle with someone who owns 25% of the club. A legal battle that is bringing yet more shame on the club as allegations fly in the courtroom. Blackpool is a laughing stock because of the Oyston’s management of the club. We will not forget the shame but that is not the only reason why we boycott.

The boycotts are mainly because the Oyston family have abused fans; taunted them and taken legal action against them. An unknown number of legal actions are ongoing. These legal actions carry a large cost.

The real human cost of legal action

Fans from across the country have raised money to help Blackpool fans defend these legal actions but money is never everything.

Two weeks ago the Blackpool Supporters Trust wrote about the real human cost of the legal action saying:

Some individuals have lost their jobs, businesses are in jeopardy, relationships with partners have broken down and health has suffered.

they went on to say

some of the people caught up in this situation ha[ve] been seriously impacted — two cases of cancer, a stroke victim, depression, loss of a baby and an attempted suicide all in the last twelve months.

Devastating stuff.

These are some of the people that used to fill that stadium, who used to cheer on the team and travel around the country with other Blackpool fans.

This is not just a club being damaged, this is people’s lives being destroyed.

They don’t get it

Unfortunately too many other people either don’t realise or don’t care that the football club is acting this way. They are not speaking up to say that this must stop or taking any form of action to help get the Oystons to go.

The club and its employees didn’t comment on the legal action or the tales of the damage the legal action has caused to fans, instead they released “funny” Christmas videos. Some fans still go and put money in the club’s coffers rather than joining the boycott. The local paper tries to stay neutral and frequently reports on Blackpool as a normal football club when it should campaign for change. The local council and its leader stay curiously silent. The footballing authorities sit on their hands, rather than trying to save the club and help the fans.

They don’t get it. The Oystons are damaging lives and could destroy the club.

My family and I made our choice to boycott Blackpool FC a long time ago. I haven’t been to Bloomfield Road for 2 1/2 years. We don’t just boycott though, like many other Blackpool fans we work to stop the damage by getting the Oystons out. We won’t give up and we won’t go away.

Image: onedayinwatford via Urban Ghosts. The wreckage of what was Scarborough FC.

I’d invite those people who still don’t get it to work with the fans who are both trying to stop the damage being done to our fellow fans and trying to save the club. There is a big job to do. Every voice, every pair of hands and every pair of feet can help.

It is also an urgent job. If you don’t help now and we don’t get the Oystons out soon then we may find ourselves with a much bigger task.

Building something new from the ashes that the Oystons leave behind.

Join the Blackpool Supporters Trust. Donate to Justice4Fans.

Seven maps that show the anatomy of America’s vast infrastructure and one blank map

The Washington Post had an article the other day on six maps that show the anatomy of America’s vast infrastructure: the electric grid; bridges; pipelines; railroads; airports; and ports and inland waterways. The article has beautiful pictures of these big, important things that make it possible for society to work for as many people as it does.

All of the maps were created using data from OpenStreetMap. OpenStreetMap is brilliant. A map of the world that is collaboratively maintained and free for people to use. OpenStreetMap is also part of a new type of infrastructure, one made of data. That data infrastructure also underpins our society in the same way that other more visible bits of infrastructure do.

Data helps engineers understand where physical infrastructure is needed, what capacity is required and how to build it safely. Data, like maps or journey planners, helps people discover and use infrastructure. It does many more things too, even if some may seem a little weird.

Without data infrastructure, and without it being so easy to use, then the Washington Post might not have printed those beautiful pictures; engineers wouldn’t find it as easy to plan and build physical infrastructure; and people wouldn’t find it as easy to use that infrastructure.

A seventh map

A map of open address data for the USA courtesy of

As well as the six maps that the Washington Post chose they could have used this one from Every dot is an address.

It’s a bit patchier than the other maps that the Washington Post showed as some USA address data is not openly available. Either the data doesn’t exist or it us kept behind pay walls which makes it hard to use. This is a problem. Everything happens somewhere and addresses help us locate all of those somewheres wherever they are in the world. This data is vital infrastructure and must be freely available for anyone to use.

Luckily data infrastructure is a lot cheaper and quicker to build than roads and waterways. The US government recognises the benefits of making this data available and is working to do it.

A blank map

A map of open address data for the UK courtesy of

In the title of this post I promised a blank map. It is not quite blank but there are no dots.

Address data for the UK is not openly available, it is locked behind paywalls. It is as if there were toll roads all over our road infrastructure. Just as fewer people would use roads if they had to pay a toll every few miles, fewer people use address data because of the paywalls. In both cases there is less social and economic impact.

Meanwhile the UK’s address data is not collaboratively maintained, like OpenStreetMap, and the quality suffers as a result. People who move into new build houses often discover that their address is missing from the lists stored in computers. They can’t order a pizza, a sofa or even register to vote. People know the address exists, it is the computers that don’t.

A couple of years ago I worked with a team of people trying to fix this. We failed. A team in the UK government are now trying to open up UK address data, I hope they succeed.

Data gets overlooked, even when a journalist is using it

Data infrastructure is part of the government’s responsibility in the same way as the other forms of infrastructure that the Washington Post wrote about. They are all vital infrastructure that underpins our society. They should be both protected and made widely available in exactly the same way.

Much of our data infrastructure is patchy or difficult to use. Things like maps, records of land ownership, ompany information, where and how we can vote.

Data infrastructure should also form part of the public debate alongside other forms of infrastructure. The danger is that data is misunderstood and overlooked, even when a journalist is using it to draw some beautiful pictures.

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