Tag: Infrastructure

The bumpy road to economic and social value

I moved to Newcastle in the North East of England last year. It’s a great place, but one of the things that first struck me about the town was the roads. There’s a motorway right through the town centre. It makes me think of tech and data, and the need to broaden the debate.

Roads for prosperity

Aerial view of the construction of the Central Motorway and Swan House roundabout, estimated to be in 1971. Image via The Evening Chronicle

When we were looking for a place to live we stopped in a few hotels near the town centre. They were on both sides of the motorway.

One side is full of shops, restaurants, cinemas, theatres and bars. The other is full of newly built university accomodation. There’s some rather strange, and a bit scary when it’s late and you’re tipsy…, skywalks connecting the two.

The motorway was opened in 1973 and was controversial at the time. Unsurprising when, as Professor Mark Tewdwr-Jones of Newcastle University says, “school playing fields and houses were…demolished”.

Glasgow motorways, courtesy of Google Maps and their various data suppliers

It was built following the Traffic in Towns report by Professor Sir Colin Douglas Buchanan. The report focussed on the growth in road traffic by cars, and the potential economic benefits that could be gained by supporting it.

Traffic in Towns was later followed by a 1989 government white paper, called The Roads for Prosperity, that followed the same tracks. Both reports gave a higher emphasis to inreasing road use and cars than to reducing environmental impact or other transport options, such as mass public transit or walking. They were design standards for urban transport. Their priority was economic growth.

Urban planners in other UK cities, like Birmingham and Glasgow, followed the same reports and the standards they set. Existing communities were again displaced or affected by roads that were built. A similar story happened in countries and cities across the world. Sometimes earlier, sometimes later.

New York City in the 1920s, Beijing in the 2000s

From the 1920s Robert Moses rebuilt New York City to favour car users as part of larger urban transformation plans. He constructed highways, bridges and parkways that cut through the city and surrounding regions to get cars to where they wanted to be. Debate over the impact of these decisions on communities, and whether Robert Moses’ politics and racism played a part in his decisions and the type of road uses he favoured, continues to this day.

Robert Moses had set the standard, other people followed his lead. Urban planners across the USA built roads that favoured road users and impacted on existing communities living in or near their path.

Beijing smog via a post by Marco Rinaldi

Many decades after Robert Moses, and as part of its preparation for the 2008 Olympics, Beijing refurbished 200 miles of roads and built two additional ring roads.

I was there in 2003 and remember standing in a hutong neighbourhood due for demolition. A resident showed me the straight lines on the map indicating where new roads were being built, and the lanes, streets and houses underneath that were either being demolished or left with greater air and noise population.

The potential benefits to be gained from the new roads had been decided to be greater than the current needs of the people who lived in Beijing. This wasn’t just about the Olympics. As part of the transition from the communist system under Mao Zedong to the market socialist / state capitalist society of current China there were similar infrastructure changes happening elsewhere across the country.

People push back

In each of these cases central authorities had decided that the potential economic gains outweighed the negative impact on people and communities without involving them in the process. People protested at the time but over the years the push back became more effective. It ended up changing the way we plan.

Anyone who followed the environmental protests in the UK in the 1990s will remember Swampy. (image copyright Reuters, I think).

In the UK there were growing protests against road developments during the 1980s and 1990s with calls for integrated transport solutions that considered different types of users like car, bus, rail, freight, bicycles and pedestrians and a reduced impact on the environment.

Gradually UK urban and road planning guidelines were changed to include the need for public consultation and the consideration of societal impacts like air quality, noise or other environmental issues. We now consider more viewpoints and needs before a decision is a made.

In parts of the USA change happened earlier. Jane Jacobs was one of the most famous figures amongst the groups in New York City arguing against Robert Moses’ plan to redevelop Greenwich Village in the 1950s and 1960s. She was part of the Joint Committee to Stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway, the ‘slum’ clearances it proposed and the decrease in air quality that it was forecast to generate. The Committee eventually won. Jane Jacobs started to formalise her thinking on urban planning in the book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It argued for a new standard for urban design which shifted the emphasis towards the people who lived in the city.

A nail house in Hongkou, picture by Drew Bates. CC-BY-2.0.

In China, the most visible protests against the new roads and urban transformationm were ‘nail houses’, stubborn holdouts against the change. This became possible due to the strengthening of private ownership rights in the post-Communist era. In some cases the holdouts are people who don’t believe the public interest in this development outweighs their own interests, in others it will be speculative investors looking to profit from the public investment.

The parallels to tech and data

I work in the world of data policy at the Open Data Institute. We’re based in the UK but work globally.

I believe data, and large parts of what we call the technology or digital sector, are becoming infrastructure, just like roads became infrastructure in the past. This means that we need to think strategically and for the long-term. The effects of the decisions that we make today will persist.

A clip from one of the boss’s talks on the challenges of strengthening data infrastructure.

One of the things I’ve been doing over the last few years is reading about the history of technology-driven change. Things like the wireless, telephone, radio and roads. The web and internet have helped us communicate over a larger scale and at much faster speeds than previously, but we are still humans. We can learn from our history and the stages technology goes through as, or if…, it gets adopted. Perhaps by learning more historical lessons we can go through those stages faster and make better decisions than before.

An important of this process is how we moved from infrastructure decisions made solely by technocrats, whether in companies or in governments, to decisions being made with society and through our democratic processes. Unfortunately technology and data is currently stuck in the world of the technocrats with very little public involvement. We have more progress to make, otherwise the protests and bumps on the roads will get bigger.

We need to broaden the conversation, and open things up

We need to have broader conversations about technology.

This will be particularly important with data. Most data is about people, and multiple people at that. Our DNA reveals information about our parents, family and even our distant relatives. Utility bills reveal who we live with. Health records contain information about medical professionals as well as ourselves. Data is about us, our families, communities and society.

When we learn how to design services for multiple people then we will have to think about their different interests and rights & how they might compete with each other.

Yet, most internet services, and much current data regulation, are designed for individuals, particularly those who are currently online. That’s part of why technology can feel uncomfortable for many. It doesn’t match much of our societies. Rather than reflecting the richness and variety of communities and societies around the world tech is bringing in the political beliefs and cultural values of the people who built it.

As the French government showed with the Digital Republic Bill, and UK organisations like DotEveryone and the Carnegie Trust are exploring, engaging the public in decisions about technology is complicated but possible. We need more politicians and large technology companies around the world to embrace this approach.

We need to have broader and more open conversations that allow the public to both take part in and influence the outcomes of the current debates about technology. We need to go beyond technology experts to include a range of other experts and the people, businesses and communities who could be beneficially or negatively impacted by a decision. They will have different opinions, and different societies will choose to give those opinions different weights, but learning from the range of views and how they develop during a debate will help us make better decisions.

As societies learnt when we were building roads the debate can’t be left to technocrats solely focussed on economic gains, it needs to be opened up to the public so that we can also debate societal values.

Data and policy talk — November 2017

Approximate words of the talk I gave at the Data gedreven Beleidsontwikkeling / Data Congress event in November 2017.

Hi, I’m from the Open Data Institute, or ODI.

I’ve been asked to do a talk about “data and policy”. First, an apology. I don’t speak Dutch and sometimes I speak English too fast, and sometimes too quietly. That makes it harder for people who don’t speak English as a first language. Sorry. Shout at me if I do that and I’ll speak more clearly.

I want to start by expanding on the word policy. It means different things in different contexts.

Merriam-Webster has a definition of policy that says “a high-level overall plan embracing the general goals and acceptable procedures especially of a governmental body”.

That is a classic definition but there are other meanings and contexts.

Within organisations there will be policies for compliance with data regulation, like GDPR, or for how data should be collected, used, stored, shared or opened. Businesses, civil society and not-for-profit organisations will also have public policy positions on “government policies that affect the whole population”.

At the Open Data Institute lots of members of the team deal with all of these meanings of policy in different contexts. Most of my work is on public policy, but I’m trying to influence both governments and businesses.

The ODI is not-for-profit. We work globally, our headquarters are in the UK. We were founded by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web, and Sir Nigel Shadbolt, an AI pioneer. We are not partisan but we are political. Data is a political topic. Open is a political statement. Our mission is knowledge for everyone.

A (hopefully) comprehensive map of where ODI has done work, where nodes have formed and where members are.

It’s our 5th birthday this year. Yay us 🙂 I’m going to share some policy lessons from those 5 years. The lessons have been learned from our work around the globe, our peer network of nodes and our network of members.

Policy is one of the capabilities we use to help us deliver our mission and strategy. We also do a lot of work with technology, training people, gathering evidence, building communities and incubating startups.

First, let’s talk about open data. Open data is vital and incredibly important but we learnt that if we only talk about and use open data then we can’t deliver our mission. Instead we work across the data spectrum.

the data spectrum

The data spectrum is about access. Who can get to data so they can use it or share it or etcetera. Some data should be kept closed within an organisation, like sales reports. Other data should be shared: the police need to be able to see your driving licence, medical records can help with research, twitter data can help us understand how social media is impacting our societies. Lots of data should be open data, things like bus timetables, maps and addresses.

At the ODI we learnt that we need to talk about and use the full spectrum of data to both get more open data and deliver on our mission.

We also learnt that we need to combat the very strange view that data is oil or coal or other types of fossil fuels.

I can, and often do, talk in economic theory about the different qualities of data and oil, but there is a more important difference. It creates the wrong mentality. People fight over control of oil. They want to hoard it for themselves. They want to sell it for huge amounts of money. This is not the way to get the most value from data, an increasingly abundant resource. The thinking generated by treating data like oil reduces innovative use of data and causes loss of trust by societies in how data is used.


Instead we need to turn data into infrastructure. It is already heading in that direction but we need to strengthen that momentum. Great infrastructure is boring, reliable, safe and easy to use. It’s there when we need it. Data is decades away from being boring, trust me *pause for ironic, self-knowing laughter*, but that’s the direction to head in. Turning data from every part of society — especially the public and private sectors – into safe, trusted and easy to use infrastructure that underpins every sector of our economy and our societies.

And that infrastructure will be built on a foundation of datasets that are made available as open data, for anyone to access, use and share. That foundation of open data makes it easier to publish and use other data.

The third lesson is about goals. Sometimes it can feel to other people like the goal of the open data movement is only to publish more open data or to put data on portals. That’s the wrong goal.


We think, talk about and use open data as a tool. One of several tools in the toolbox.

A toolbox that we, and others, use to tackle problems. Like finding a job that you enjoy, combatting corruption, finding your way around a city, responding to the threat of anti-microbial resistance, helping with house planning and building, or understanding the growth of new sectors and business models like the sharing economy (something we’re looking at in our new R&D programme).

The fourth lesson is about chance. Chance is great. Very unexpected things happen when you open up data. One of my personal favourites is that the UK government opened up radar data that was originally gathered for planning flood defences and people used it to discover both new places to grow wineand new Roman roads that criss-cross parts of the country. Fantastic. But that doesn’t always work.


Instead we learnt that we need to put more focus on creating impact by design. Looking for problems, working with people who are experts in tackling it and helping them to use data as one of the tools in their toolbox. When we do that then chance can also happen, but we also have a much higher chance of impact, and impact is necessary for sustainable change.

So those lessons are some of the ways we learnt to think about data over the last 5 years — about the full spectrum of data, about data as a tool, about impact by design, and about data as infrastructure. Those mental models are part of our approach to public policy.

But through our work and delivery we have also learnt some of the most effective levers that we have to create impact. In our policy work we amplify those levers and encourage others to use them or build their own.

First, practical advocacy.

Over the years we’ve developed a set of guides and a toolbox. They’re openly licenced. Anyone can use them, or fork them and change them. That can be a challenge for an organisation that needs to bring in revenues but it’s the right thing to do for a mission with an an open culture and a big mission. We don’t want to do everything, even if tried we wouldn’t be able to. We want to make it possible for other people to do what we do.


The practical advocacy tools keep on expanding.

We recently launched the first version of a data ethics canvas to help organisations using data understand, openly debate and decide on ethical issues about collecting, sharing and using data. Interestingly when we looked into data ethics we found that most of the debate was about personal data in the closed and shared parts of the data spectrum. People had missed the ethical issues around open data and non-personal data. The canvas might help fix that.


As part of our research & development programme we’re exploring how open data is being used in public sector service delivery and how it could be used more. There are some famous stories about open data helping to reimagine public services but we are still seeing the same old stories and not enough momentum. We’re hoping that through our research we can help understand the barriers to change, and build some methods and patterns that will help people do more things to use data to improve public services.

Patterns are important. We’ve also developed a set of design patterns for policymakers that use data to help them create impact. While data policy people might know data, many other policymakers don’t. We need to reach them and put data into their context, in language they understand and helping them understand how it can help them tackle their problems.


Through approaches like evidence-based policy many policymakers have realised that data can help inform policy, but these patterns also help show policymakers how data can help deliver policy. Whether that policy is reducing costs, improving an uncompetitive market, or helping consumers switch between service providers.

The next big lever is networks, peer networks in particular.

Peer networks are horizontal organisational structures with members who share similar identities, circumstances or contexts. We run global, African and European peer networks for open data and have seen their power in developing learnings and creating change. We’re learnt from how they have grown and how the people in them interact.


We’ve been seeing peer networks start to emerge in other work they do. Things like ODINE (open data incubator Europe), Datapitch (another Europe-wide startup incubator), and the sector programmes.

We believe that fostering other peer networks: in sectors, in particular disciplines (like policy), or in particular geographies will help build a better future faster. We’ve published a method report that we, or others, can use to do that.

Finally, sector programmes. We’ve been working with whole sectors to help them work together to use data. We can get more done if we work together.

Most people are familiar with organisations like the Open Government Partnership. Less well known are groups like GODAN (the Global Open Data for Agriculture & Nutrition) initiative that brings together governments, businesses and farmers to open up agriculture data to solve problems.


OpenActive is opening up sport data to make people more physically active. Places that offer a whole range of sports: football, squash, badminton, table tennis, running are opening up data and they’re also building an ecosystem of organisations that will use that data to make it easier for more people to play the sports they love.

In an initiative called open banking the UK retail banking sector is opening up data about products, locations and cash machines and creating open APIs so that people can choose to share data held about them by banks with people that they trust. We hope it will make it easier for more people to create better services for bank customers. It could also improve national statistics, help improve the UK’s identity framework, help tackle financial inclusion or many other things. We’re talking to other countries on multiple continents about helping them implement open banking too.

There are more sectors, like transport, coming together as they start to see the power of working together to solve common problems. We need to encourage sectors to understand and unlock the value of open data by focussing on infrastructure, skills and open innovation.


Finally, we’re launching a report today on the grocery retail sector and GDPR based on consumer research, sector interviews and our thinking about sectors. We want to encourage the retail sector to work together to focus on opportunities, and to use the data they hold in ways that both builds trust in shoppers and gives them better services.


But there’s an important point to understand with all of these levers. We are not building a new product or smartphone game. We are changing systems. This takes time. We are only a few decades into a large wave of technology driven change that will take many more decades to see through to the end.

Take geospatial data. People have been campaigning for open UK geospatial data for decades. Just last week there was another major commitment, a new Geospatial Commission and £80m of new government funding to maximise the value created by location data starting by opening up the UK government’s most detailed maps. It will take a few more years before the impact of that committment is fully seen.


And that’s why there’s another vital lesson. Having fun. Being optimistic. Sometimes it can feel like things are moving slowly or in a bad direction and that things will never get better. But just as open is a political statement, so optimism is a political act. Having fun helps me be optimistic. Choosing to be optimistic both helps the day go faster and creates the momentum we need to help create a better future.

Thank you.

Open data and advocacy — EU datathon

Approximate words of the talk I gave at the EU datathon in November 2017.

Hi, I’m from the Open Data Institute, or ODI. I’ve been asked to do a quick talk before the next panel about “open data and advocacy”. I’ll keep it quick so you can get to the panel and the Q&A. Asking questions is much more fun than listening to a presentation 🙂

We’re a not-for-profit. We work globally, our headquarters are in the UK. We were founded 5 years ago by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web, and Sir Nigel Shadbolt, an AI pioneer. Our mission is knowledge for everyone.

As you might have seen on the first slide it’s our 5th birthday this year. Yay us. So, I want to share a bit about what we’ve learned about advocacy and open data in that time.

First, let’s talk about open data. Open data is vital and incredibly important but if we only talk about and use open data then we can’t deliver our mission. Instead we work across the data spectrum.

the data spectrum

The data spectrum is about access. Who can get to data so they can use it or share it or etcetera. Some data should be kept closed within an organisation, like sales reports. Other data should be shared: the police need to be able to see your driving licence, medical records can help with research, twitter data can help us understand how social media is impacting our societies. Lots of data should be open like bus timetables, maps and addresses.

We need to talk about and use the full spectrum of data if we were to get more open data made available so that anyone can access, use and share it.

The second lesson is about goals. Sometimes it can feel to other people like the goal of the open data movement is only to publish more open data or to put data on portals. That’s the wrong goal.


We think, talk about and use open data as a tool.

A tool that we use to solve problems. Like finding a job that you enjoy, combatting corruption, finding your way around a city, responding to the threat of anti-microbial resistance, helping with house planning and building, or understanding the growth of new sectors and business models like the sharing economy (something we’re looking at in our new R&D programme).

The third lesson is about chance. Chance is great. Very unexpected things happen when you open up data. One of my personal favourites is that the UK government opened up radar data that was originally gathered for planning flood defences and people used it to discover both new places to grow wine and new Roman roads that criss-cross parts of the country. Fantastic. But that doesn’t always work.


We need more focus on creating impact by design. Looking for problems, working with people who are experts in tackling it and getting them the data they need. To move data to the right place on the spectrum. When we do that then chance can also happen, but we also have a much higher chance of impact.

We also learnt that we need to combat the very strange view that data is oil or coal or other types of fossil fuels. I can talk in economic theory about the different qualities of data and oil, but there’s a more important difference. It creates the wrong mentality. People fight over control of oil. They want to hoard it for themselves. They want to sell it for huge amounts of money.


Instead we need to turn data into infrastructure. It is already heading in that direction but we need to strengthen that momentum. Great infrastructure is boring, reliable and safe to use. It’s there when we need it. Data is decades away from being boring, trust me *pause for ironic, self-knowing laughter*, but that’s the direction to head in. Turning data from the public and private sectors into infrastructure that underpins every sector of our economy and societies.

And that infrastructure will be built on a foundation of datasets that are made available as open data, for anyone to access, use and share. That foundation of open data makes it easier to publish and use other data. It’s a powerful way of thinking.

So those lessons are some of the ways we learnt to think — about the full spectrum of data, about data as a tool, about impact by design, and about data as infrastructure. Those mental models have helped our advocacy.

But over the last five years we have also learnt some methods that work to create impact.

We’ve been working with whole sectors to help them use data.

The UK retail banking sector is opening up data about products, locations and cash machines and creating open APIs so that people can choose to share data held about them by banks with people that they trust. We hope it will make it easier for more people to create better services for bank customers. We’re talking to other countries on multiple continents about helping them to make the same change. GODAN (the Global Open Data for Agriculture & Nutrition) initiative that we work with is working globally to open agriculture data to solve problems.


OpenActive is opening up sport data to make people more physically active. Places that offer a whole range of sports: football, squash, badminton, table tennis, running are opening up data and they’re also building an ecosystem of organisations that will use that data to make it easier for more people to play the sports they love.

There are more sectors, like transport, coming together as they start to see the power of working together to solve common problems. We need to encourage sectors to understand and unlock the value of open data by focussing on infrastructure, skills and open innovation.

We’re launching a report next week on the grocery retail sector and GDPR based on consumer research, sector interviews and our thinking about sectors. We want to encourage the retail sector to work together to focus on opportunities, and to use the data they hold in ways that builds trust in shoppers and gives them better services.


As well as sector programmes we work on practical advocacy. Here’s two examples.

  • A set of design patterns for policymakers that use data to help them create impact. While data policy people know data, many other policymakers don’t. We need to reach them and put data into their context, in language they understand and tackling problems they need to solve.
  • A data ethics canvas to help organisations using data understand, openly debate and decide on ethical issues about collecting, sharing and using data. Interestingly when we looked at data ethics we found that most of the debate was about personal data in the closed and shared parts of the data spectrum. People had missed the ethical issues around open data.

We’ve also been working on networks. Peer networks are horizontal organisational structures with members who share similar identities, circumstances or contexts. We run global, African and European peer networks for open data and have seen their power in developing learnings and creating change. We’re learnt from how they have grown and how the people in them interact.


We’ve been seeing peer networks start to emerge in other work they do. Things like ODINE (open data incubator Europe), Datapitch (another Europe-wide startup incubator), and the sector programmes.

We believe that fostering other peer networks: in sectors, in particular disciplines (like policy), or in particular geographies will help build a better future faster. We’ve published a method report that we, or others, can use to do that.


Oh and finally, there’s another vital method. Having fun. Sometimes it can feel like things are moving slowly or in a bad direction and that things will never get better. But just as open is a political statement, we should also be aware that optimism is a political act. Having fun helps me be optimistic. Choosing to be optimistic both helps the day go faster and helps create a better future.

Thank you. I hope this talk and the rest of the event is both fun and useful.

Roman roads and data infrastructure

I occasionally walk around, wave my arms and proclaim:

data is infrastructure, just like roads

I alternately blame and praise the brilliant Jeni Tennison for this strange affliction. I praise Jeni for coming up with the wonderful analogy of roads for data, I blame her for infecting me with the bug of excitedly talking about it to anybody and everybody so that I can learn from what they think.

A clip from one of Jeni’s talk on data infrastructure.

I recently proclaimed that data was like roads to a friend who has a degree in classics and spent a career teaching in primary schools. She is very well-read.

My friend asked me if I thought that as a society we were well advanced in building our data infrastructure.

No, I said, it’s only been a few decades since the invention of the internet / web which led to the current massive growth in data, I suspect it will take a decade or two before we learn how to do data things well.

I think you’re right, she replied, after all the data infrastructure that you describe sounds a lot like the Roman roads and it took us a couple of millennia to start getting roads right.

Really? I said. Roman roads? That sounds interesting….

Roman roads were for the economy as well as the military

A Roman army in an Asterix comic. They will have tried, and failed, to conquer. Copyright René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo

Our usual vision of a Roman road is either a muddy field being dug up by a team of archaeologists or an army of Roman soldiers marching to try and conquer a new land. But Roman roads were used by other people too. They were an important component of the Roman economy.

People transported goods along them for trade and materials for building new houses. Books have been written about the impact of roads on Roman Egypt and Italy — they had sophisticated pricing models, integrated their road with other modes of transport and they evolved governance arrangements to manage the development of their roads.

But Roman roads were not only for armies and traders. They were also used to transport messages, taxes and people. Along the cursus publicus, or public way, there were mansios, or waystations.

Data is not really roads

Before I go further into this tale I should be clear that I don’t really think data is exactly like roads. It’s an analogy. All analogies are imperfect. But I do think data is becoming a new, strange and vital form of infrastructure for a 21st century society. It’s very important that we debate and learn how to get the best out of it.

A first edition of the first UK Highway Code by Mikey Ashworth, CC-BY-2.0

The analogy of roads helps break people out of the usual mindset when thinking about data. The frequent comparison with oil is particularly misplaced.

The analogy of roads is much more relevant. The importance of maintenance; the need for big, open roads between large towns and the value of smaller roads for villages; the dangers of toll roads and expensive or complicated licensing; and rulebooks for how to use the roads.

It’s a pretty decent analogy, as analogies go, but my friend had started talking about Roman roads.

Roman roads helped co-opt other economies

Mansio were set up along the roads. They were maintained by the Roman government and used by officials and armies. Officials from the government and their animals could sleep, get washed and get fed. Many other people could use the mansios too but they would have to pay for the privilege.

The money people paid would go to the upkeep of the mansios and to the running of the cursus publicus. The cursus publicus was a transportation system, both for people and for messages. Officials and their information would travel for free. Everyone else would have to pay. It was a massive toll road network set up across a range of nations with preferential access for one group of people.

Other people would pay because the Roman roads were so much better than the roads they could build themselves. There was no real competition: if you wanted to go from A to B you had to go Roman. As a result many of the mansio gradually grew into towns.

A Roman coin showing Marcus Aurelius. Copyright: CC-BY-SA 3.0 by Rasiel at English Wikipedia

The impact wasn’t just to preferentially improve the economy of one group of people, the Romans, and their towns but also to help impose Roman culture and standards by making people use their language and their currency. It is a myth that the width of our railways comes from Roman roads — that was due to a different bit of infrastructure, the railways that were invented in the North of England — but many European town names and locations still reflect their Roman origins.

After telling me the tale of Roman roads my friend turned to me and said: isn’t that what you just described? Aren’t Google, Microsoft, Amazon and those big government agencies a modern cursus publicus?

Oh, I said, yes they are.

What have the Romans ever done for us

As I noted earlier “data is roads” is just an analogy and IANARH (I am not a Roman historian) but the similarity of the Roman system to our current data infrastructure was both striking and reassuring.

The Roman road system was striking in its similarities, even down to people bemoaning what the road builders have done while using their roads, recognising that what they’ve done is actually very good and realising that in many cases it couldn’t have happened without them.

It was also reassuring. History is full of repeated patterns and perhaps the current stage of evolution of our data infrastructure is a necessary stage in a pattern that repeats when new infrastructure emerges.

We learnt that roads needed to be run as a system

Roman roads might have started off as a form of military and economic conquest but we gradually learnt more about the need for roads to be run as a system for the good of everyone in society. This took a while, as did our understanding of government’s role in making that happen. The case for this involvement evolved as we understood the decisions that needed to be made.

A thousand years after the fall of the Roman empire the UK decided that governments should take a stronger role in roads with the first Highways Act in the UK. 300 years later the Rebecca Riots against toll roads contributed to the gradual removal of charges and the transfer of responsibility to central and local government for maintaining most roads. Private roads, for example the path to your house or the bit of road to a local factory, were not transferred but governments make sure that we have a duty of care to visitors and workers.

The Rebecca Riots, courtesy Wikipedia and the Illustrated London News

The UK still builds some toll roads but, generally, they are on a lease. For example the M6 toll road near Birmingham will be a toll road for 53 years until the initial investment is paid back. Meanwhile in 1978 countries worked together to develop the Vienna Convention on road signs and signals to standardise rules of the road. Common standards that help with safety and make it easier for people in one country to drive to a location in another whether it’s for pleasure or business. And at this point we come full circle back to my road and data analogies which tells me that it’s time to stop…

But one final thought. Many of the major roads in European countries are still based on the old Roman ones. I wonder if in 2000 years our data infrastructure will still show signs of its 21st century origins and the decisions of the people who are building it now?




Hacker Noon is how hackers start their afternoons. We’re a part of the @AMI family. We are now accepting submissions and happy to discuss advertising & sponsorship opportunities.

If you enjoyed this story, we recommend reading our latest tech stories and trending tech stories. Until next time, don’t take the realities of the world for granted!


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.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — -

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.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — -

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}

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 openaddresses.io

As well as the six maps that the Washington Post chose they could have used this one from openaddresses.io. 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 openaddresses.io

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.

Open addresses: will the address wars ever end?

This is the (rough) text of a talk I gave at the British Computer Society (BCS) Location Information Specialist Group’s 3rd annual addressing update seminar in August 2016. There were more jokes in person. And some Pikachu. The slides for my talk are also online as are those for Ant Beck’s talk.

Hi, I’m Peter. I do some stuff at the Open Data Institute (ODI). The ODI was founded three years ago. It’s mission is to connect, equip and inspire people around the world to innovate with data. Its headquarters are in the UK but it works around the world.

I’m here to talk about open addresses in the UK. To understand the tale it’s useful to start off with a (shortened) bit of history.

Ancient history…

Addresses and other types of geospatial data were early targets for open data releases. They are vital datasets that make it possible to build many, many services and products. Way back in 2006 Charles Arthur and Michael Cross wrote in the Guardian to ask the UK government to “give us back our crown jewels”. They pointed out the complex arrangements for maintaining address data and how the data was sold to fund those complex arrangements. They even pointed out the issues it generated for the 2001 census.

In 2009 the UK government announced that Tim Berners-Lee, one of the ODI’s founders, was going to help it open up data and in 2010 government said that postcodes and address data were going to be early releases. Victory!

Some of the tales from 2013

But it was a pyrrhic victory. Whilst government released many thousands of datasets the promised address data was not one of them. In 2013 the Royal Mail was privatised along with its rights to help create and sell that address data. The complex arrangements that were pointed out in 2006 just got more complex. And, in the meantime, another census happened with the inevitable, and costly, need to build another new address list.

The open data community was rightly sad, and probably got a bit angry. They knew how important that data was. They kept working to make things better. They didn’t just tweet, they organised.

More recent history…

In 2014 the Cabinet Office’s release of data fund provided some money to the ODI to explore whether it was possible to rebuild the UK’s address list and publish it as open data. The ODI pulled together lots of people who work with addresses to share and debate ideas.

The homepage of Open Addresses

This led to the launch of Open Addresses UK. I was one of the team working for Open Addresses. We worked as openly as possible with regular blogs and open source code.

We explored the benefits of better address data for the UK. We found that we could help fix problems such as the months it can take before new addresses are added to computer systems across the country. Months during which someone might not be able to order a pizza, get home insurance or register to vote. We looked at the economic evidence from case studies of other countries, such as Denmark, that have released address data as open data. If the success of Denmark scaled in proportion to the population of the country then the UK could expect to see an extra £110 million a year of social and economic value. Value that we don’t get at the moment because paid data creates less economic value than open data.

We looked at funding models. We started off with £383k of funding from the Cabinet Office. We got some extra funding from BCS (thank you). We knew that we would need to be able to show people what our services would look like before we could start bringing in funding from the users of address services.

From talking with potential users of those services we learnt about the challenges of address entry on many websites. User research supported our theory that moving to free-format address entry would both make life easier for many people and lead to better quality address data going into organisations. We built a working demo of that service.

We knew we needed to gather address data. Following on from the discovery phase we built a model that would allow any organisation or individual to contribute their own address data; that would allow anyone to add large sets of open data containing addresses if they followed guidelines and confirmed that they were legally allowed to publish that address data as open data; and put in place a takedown policy to investigate and remove any infringing data. For the legally minded, we were set up to host the data. This was important. In the past people had been threatened with legal action by the Royal Mail over address data and the hosting model provided a defence.

Unfortunately we hit a snag.

Digital cholera makes me sad.

We learned that one of the largest open data sets held by government was tainted by what we called ‘digital cholera’. It contained third party rights that government was not authorised to licence as open data. This was no good. We wanted to publish address data that was safe to use.

We didn’t want to spend the limited grant funding on more and more legal advice or court battles (sorry lawyers…). So we concentrated on other approaches.

We used clean open data sets and statistical techniques to multiply the address data we already had. For example, “if house number 1 exists and house number 5 exists then house number 3 probably exists”.

We started developing a collaborative maintenance model. People could use our address services to both improve their own services and improve the address data that everyone was using. The model would enable us to learn and publish new address information (such as alternative addresses — like Rose Cottage rather than 8 Acacia Avenue and new addresses) as people started to use them. This would increase the speed of publishing new information and improve data quality. By crowdsourcing data through APIs the data would get better as more people used it.

The team recognised that these new ways of collecting address data would impact on confidence. So, we started developing a model that would allow the platform to declare a level of confidence in each address. The model allowed for different levels of trust based on how frequently we’d seen an address, who reported it, and how long ago they’d reported it. Data users could use the APIs to determine confidence and choose whether to trust an address for their particular use case.

But all this time the clock was ticking. There was limited funding. From the beginning we knew that we were testing two hypotheses.

Two hypotheses. Both are true.

Unfortunately we discovered that both hypotheses were true. We could build much better address services using modern approaches, but the intellectual property issues would keep hindering us.

A report was published: to share the lessons of what worked, and what didn’t. As you’ll see in the report even with all of our mitigations against intellectual property violations in place, Open Addresses was only able to find one insurer who would provide it with cover for defence against Intellectual Property infringement claims. The insurers were too concerned that the Royal Mail would take legal action to protect their revenues from address data.

A blog was published about the shades of grey in open data. And then Open Addresses went to sleep.

Someone else would have to take up the challenge of opening up address data and making things better for everyone.

Meanwhile…

While Open Addresses was happening so were other things. Lots of things. I’m obviously interested in the data ones.

The ODI was thinking about who owned our data infrastructure. Data is infrastructure to a modern society. Just like roads. Roads help us navigate to a location. Data helps us make a decision.

Spot the infrastructure in this excellent picture by Paul Downey.

The government was also working on its policy of government-as-a-platform. Companies House were opening up their data and putting it on the web. The Land Registry described itself as a steel thread that we could all build on.

Things started to come together with the description of registers as authoritative list that we could all trust. We could all build things on top of government’s open registers.

Registers are data infrastructure. An important part of data infrastructure is geospatial data, like addresses.

Now

In the 2016 budget it was announced that government had allocated £5m to explore options to open up address data.

It is important to understand that this is about exploring options. As Open Addresses had learnt UK addresses are pretty complex. We have centuries of legacy to deal with.

Matt Hancock, who was the Minister for the Cabinet Office when the announcement was made, likened it to the ‘US administration (decision) to allow GPS data to be made freely available for civilian use in the 1980s, which he said had “kick-started a multi-billion dollar proliferation of digital goods and services”’.

He got the importance of this data being open. Not that surprising when you know that his parents ran a company that built “software that allows you to type your postcode into the internet and bring up your address”.

Government is building a common language about addresses.

Government is exploring the options as openly as possible. They are sharing their research into topics such as the need and complexity of address matching. and the need for a common language for addresses. They are trialling technology approaches, you can see the source code for yourself: it’s open. And this all forms part of the bigger picture of building registers as infrastructure for the government-as-a-platform strategy. In fact just this week government announced an early version of an authoritative register for English local authorities.

Whilst not all of the work is in the open (remember, the arrangements for UK address data are complex commercially and legally) it is clear that many government organisations — such as the Cabinet Office, Ordnance Survey, BEIS and Treasury — are working together to explore the options and business case for an open register. Good ☺

Will the address wars ever end?

All of the above is what I said in the talk at the BCS addressing update seminar. At the end the audience debated some of the issues raised. The legal issues seemed to confuse some people — derived database rights are tricky. Eventually I was asked the most important question: will this new UK government initiative to create an open address register succeed?

The honest answer is “I don’t know” but I do trust the people working on it. They are good and there is clear political will to get this problem sorted. With good people and political support it’s possible to do hard things. I choose to be optimistic. I think they’ll succeed. Good ☺

The web of data is coming.

It is important for the UK that they do. We need to build for the future web of data.

Other countries recognise the value of data infrastructure that is as open as possible. The USA, Australia and France have all recently made strong moves to get their address data open.

Data infrastructure is a competitive advantage in the 21st century. We need to move on from old licensing and funding models that don’t make the best use of the qualities of the web and data.

Let’s build better data infrastructure that makes things better for everyone.




Hacker Noon is how hackers start their afternoons. We’re a part of the @AMI family. We are now accepting submissions and happy to discuss advertising & sponsorship opportunities.

If you enjoyed this story, we recommend reading our latest tech stories and trending tech stories. Until next time, don’t take the realities of the world for granted!


Gotta work together if you’re gonna catch ‘em all

A cuddly Psyduck from the 1998 launch of Pokemon Red/Blue. Picture by Mrs Gemstone, CC-BY-SA.

The launch of Pokémon Go has seen the rebirth of a 90s craze in the smartphone era. It’s a rebirth that leads to a tale about different worlds, data infrastructure, sensors and working together to improve our real world.

Pokémon Go is an AR (augmented reality) game. It is not the first AR game, it is not even the first where people roam their town catching monsters, but it is certainly the most popular so far. On one day last month 25 million people played it in the USA. The craze might fade but we will see a wave of AR games and products over the next few years.

Pokémon Go takes place across three worlds

We can think of Pokémon Go as taking place across three worlds: the real world that the player is walking around; the Pokémon world where the characters, gyms and pokestops are; and a world of data, or data infrastructure, that connects together the real and Pokémon worlds. Many other AR games and services will show a similar pattern.

A sample Pokemon map, with a pokestop in the pub just across the road from my flat.

Players wander the real world whilst their smartphone displays a map from the world of data with local parks and streets. The map also shows the location of characters in the Pokémon world that people can catch. When people try to catch a Pokémon the phone will overlay an image of the character on a live image of the real world captured through their phone camera. The map also shows places where people can collect items, called pokéstops, and gyms where people can battle each other using Pokémon characters.

The Pokemon world’s gyms and pokéstops are overlaid on real places: pubs, churches, restaurants that exist in the real world and whose name, type and location is also stored in the data infrastructure.

Pokémon Go shows us some of the gaps in our data infrastructure

Digital maps and lists of places pinpoint where we live, work and visit; connect us to local communities and services we rely on; and help us find our way around the world. They are important parts of the data infrastructure that underpins so many parts of a modern society and economy. I think about that data infrastructure a lot in my current job.

Unfortunately there are problems with our data infrastructure. If my address wasn’t in that data infrastructure then I might struggle to register to vote, get insurance or even order a pizza. Other parts of our data infrastructure are inaccessible because its locked away or priced too high for people to use. Other parts are simply missing or broken, no one’s got around to building or fixing them yet.

Despite this data infrastructure underpins Pokémon Go and will underpin other AR games and services in the future. We can see some of it’s weaknesses in this game.

A vicious looking Pidgey that got through security in a UK Parliament building. Characters in the Pokémon world don’t respect barriers in the real world because the barriers aren’t in the data infrastructure.

Shortly after the launch of the game someone who lived in a converted church reported that their house had been marked as a pokéstop and that players were gathering outside. The information about the place was out of date. People had to be asked to stop playing the game in Auschwitz museum. The information about this area of the real world was incomplete. Some areas and towns have few pokéstops or gyms because these areas are rural or contained few players of previous AR games so there is a lack of information. Pokémon Go is only playable in a few parts of South Korea due to national security concerns. Meanwhile any Pokémon player in an area with recent construction is likely to see bits of the map that are incorrect with missing roads or a park that has since been built over.

Collaboratively maintained data infrastructure will create better AR

Pokémon Go has ways for people to report problems with the data, but these are not easy to use and only pass data back to the people who control the Pokémon world rather than the people who maintain the underlying data infrastructure. As more AR services launch will the people who live in the converted church or people who live in poor and rural areas have to report the same problems to each of the new service providers? Will each service provider have to clean up the same data? This seems rather time-consuming and expensive when people can work together and solve the problem once.

Weak data infrastructure will be a a common problem for AR services, stronger, collaboratively maintained data infrastructure that anyone can use will provide a common solution.

A road found by a Pokémon Go player will be available to a car driver using Google Maps to find their way around a strange city. Players in one game can mark an area as out of bounds and players in other games will receive the same warning. Data about a new restaurant will be available to every service whether it be a game or an AR service that tries to entice you into that restaurant.

If the data is handled carefully, and privacy and openness are brought together to build trust, then perhaps some of the camera images could also be incorporated. Perhaps Pokémon Go could automatically spot and report a pothole caught on your camera whilst you were playing the game. People are more likely to trust uses of their data that respect their privacy and benefit society. This trust can lead to increased use of the AR service benefiting the service provider.

Collaboratively maintained and open data infrastructure will help build a better future

The benefits go beyond improving the AR services. Information about poorly mapped areas of cities can be gathered and used by AR services, public services or delivery firms. On election day a government could publish information about candidates and polling stations to the data infrastructure and every AR service would have access to the information and be able to incorporate it into their virtual worlds to encourage more people to vote.

The coming explosion in data. Image from the Open Data Institute, CC-BY-SA.

We are about to see an explosion in the number of sensors capturing data about our world. In Pokémon Go these sensors are smartphones and their cameras, but we are also seeing the rise of the Internet of Things; automated cars that will transport people whilst capturing data about the streets they travel; and delivery drones capturing images from the sky.

All of these sensors can capture data, respect privacy and publish useful information back to the underlying data infrastructure to help collaboratively maintain and improve it. By working together to maintain this data infrastructure and publishing data as openly as possible so that anyone can use it then it can help build a future which maximises the value we get from the data. To put it simply it can help make the real world a better place. One that can handle a growing population and our expectation for ever cheaper and better services. It will also improve AR games and might make Pokémon in their Pokémon world a bit easier to catch too.

It might seem strange to go from the 90s Pokémon craze, to an augmented reality game using three different worlds, to building a collaborative and open data infrastructure that can make the world a better place to live.

Perhaps it looks like a crazy dream that’s come from throwing too many balls at too many cartoon characters but it is an achievable future and one that comes from working together. Even if we start by throwing a small ball at some strange cartoon characters, we can still dream big.

Building financial data infrastructure through open banking

Notes from a speech at a Thomson Reuters-hosted ODI Futures events on the future of financial data infrastructure. The event also included the launch of an ODI Labs paper on blockchain technology.

Data is infrastructure. Just like roads. Roads help us navigate to a location, data helps us make a decision. In the industrial revolution we learnt how to build good road infrastructure. In the digital revolution we need to learn how to build good data infrastructure.


Our road infrastructure is more than just the roads. It includes road signs that describe a particular piece of road. The highway code that tells us how we should all behave. Organisations that maintain roads and make sure they’re there when we need them. When there are potholes and road blockages, there are people whose job it is to fix those problems. Today, we can help too. Apps like FixMyStreet let us take pictures of potholes and send them to our local councils.


Similarly, our data infrastructure is more than data. The data is important — and that data comes from across the spectrum of closed, shared and open data — but data infrastructure includes the technology, processes and organisations that help us publish, discover, maintain and use that data.

Technology such as blockchains and open APIs. Processes such as data protection legislation or training to help people understand how to use data ethically. Organisations such as the ODI or each of you in the audience today. I suspect that everyone here today either maintains or uses financial data infrastructure. If you have a bank account then your data is in that infrastructure.

Data infrastructure connects multiple sectors. To give some examples from around the financial sector. Economic statistics are used by banks to make decisions about investments. Flood maps are used by insurance companies to set premiums. Property ownership records are used to understand credit risk. Informaton about mortgage products is used by banks, regulators and customers to make decisions.

But we need to learn how to strengthen data infrastructure. There is too much data that is poorly maintained, inaccessible or that costs too much money to access.

When strengthening data infrastructure people, businesses, governments and societies will face choices. These choices might lead us to different data futures.


We might choose a locked-down future. One where organisations misuse data in ways that we find creepy whilst we continue to see hacks and security breaches due to poor security. This leads to people choosing to withdraw their data and reducing how much they interact online. Think of it as a data infrastructure dominated by missing roads and communities with padlocked gates. It creates the least value from data.

Or a paid future. One where everyone expects to pay for access to data and to be paid for access to their data. Imagine the costs of managing all of those transactions and licences. It’s a data infrastructure with toll booths every 100 yards. This may be the future we are heading towards right now. It’s flawed.

At the ODI believe we should choose something else: an open future. One where our data infrastructure is like our road system. The data infrastructure is as open and navigable as possible. Open data will be maximised, while privacy is respected. We believe this future creates the most value. It creates a virtuous circle from which everyone can benefit.

But analogies only go so far. We won’t build better data infrastructure using the same techniques we use for road infrastructure. To give a simple example the M25 was first proposed in 1937 in Sir Charles Bressey’s and Sir Edwin Lutyens’ The Highway Development Survey. It was completed 49 years later in 1986.


None of us can take that long to plan and build better data infrastructure. The web moves too fast. The web has only been around for 25 years and look at what it has delivered. The web of data is the next stage in its evolution.

Lots of people are helping building this open future and the web of data with the open banking standard. Last year about 150 people from a huge range of organisations collaborated and worked in the open. In just 3 months they agreed a way to make retail banking data as open as possible whilst keeping private what should be private.


To implement the framework the community will need to work together to understand the needs of differing stakeholders, develop open standards, publish open data about products and branches, create open APIs for sharing personal data with people in control, develop guidance for compliance, rollout training, to run innovation challenges to test the standard and stimulate the market and communications to make sure everyone knows what’s happening.

The prize for completing this work is big. A data infrastructure which is as open as possible, such as the one developed by the open banking standard, will enable open innovation at web-scale.

The standard will help customers to look for a mortgage more easily, banks to find customers matched to a new product, and businesses to share data with their accountants. The uses won’t be limited to the UK retail banking sector. People have talked about using the data in the UK’s decentralised identity framework; or to help people who move country and need to create a new banking account or rent a flat. The standard will allow these, and many other services, to be built whilst respecting privacy, putting customers in control of their data and creating trust.


People want those services and open innovation creates opportunities for businesses. Good data infrastructure which is as open as possible is a competitive advantage for organisations, cities, sectors and nations.

The open banking standard helps build that infrastructure and is part of that competitive advantage. It’s part of the open future for financial data infrastructure.

© 2021

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑