Notes on a National Information Infrastructure

In October the Advisory Panel on Public Sector Information (APPSI) released a short discussion paper based on the idea of building a ‘National Information Framework’ to build an ‘information infrastructure’ for the United Kingdom. The idea of an information infrastructure draws upon the metaphor of physical infrastructure – noting that governments play a role planning, investing in, and strategically co-ordinating projects like road, rail, electricity and water supplies, working with a range of private and public stakeholders – and suggesting that similar levels of co-ordination could be applied to the resources that power an information economy.

APPSI’s vision of a National Information Framework incorporates not only datasets, but also skills, standards, meta-data, directories, tools and guidance to ensure the country has the necessary resources and processes to capitalise on available information. It notes that not all PSI is open data, and, whilst welcoming the impetus that an initial ‘transparency’ push in the open data movement gave to efforts to open up PSI (that had perhaps not seen the same dynamism under attempts to implement the European Public Sector Information directive), is not overly concerned with whether data is strictly open data or not, but does emphasise the importance of ‘core datasets’ being free at the point of use. One of APPSI’s core contentions is that the push towards open data has lacked a strategic approach, and the mandate/terms of reference of those groups that have emerged recently, such as the Data Strategy Board, Open Data Users Group, and the Open Data Institute, limit their wide-reaching vision to address not only specific datasets, but also wider structures, skills and investment needed to make the most of data.

The concept of an ‘information infrastructure’ is a very useful one: both to support more strategic thinking about how data resources are made available, and at the same time to support critical analysis of which groups may win or lose from the approaches taken. Whether that critical analysis would support the sort of designed infrastructure APPSI are aiming for (they note that it would require both top-down and bottom-up components, but there is a strong sense in the report of an interest in the top-down) is something to explore. Let us look at a few properties of infrastructures worth noting:

  • The design (or historical accidents in creation of) of an infrastructure has a big impact on what can be built upon it: take for example UK railways, where the track gauge and low bridges rule our running continental style double-decker trains as a way to respond to overcrowding. Choices made about infrastructure can leave a long legacy.
  • National infrastructures often involve a mix of public and private investment: and the UK experience, again with railways, and with private-public partnership building projects for schools and hospitals, shows this does not always lead to a net gain for citizens.
  • Infrastructure decisions are political: choosing where to build a road or an airport can be an important decision to bring economic development to an area, but such decisions can also be made not based on demand or need, but on political horse-trading over projects, popularity, votes and support.
  • Infrastructures require governance and regulation: this was perhaps a missing term in APPSI’s list – but many infrastructures have complex governance systems – from shareholdings in joint public-private companies, to user-groups and watchdogs. The power and responsibility of infrastructures requires strong checks and balances.
  • Infrastructures can be justified on results, or provided in principle: when I was in Norway earlier this year I was struck by hearing about the right of citizens to choose where to live across the vast and remote lands of the North, and to have infrastructure provided to their homes supported by the state. Here, the provision of infrastructure was not on the basis of economic return, but was based on the responsibility of the state towards citizens. By contrast, in many places an infrastructure would only be provided where there was a return to be seen. Infrastructures can be built to serve social value, but often the assessment criteria in a ‘cost benefit analysis’ is the financial bottom line.

As my own work turns to look also at the emergence of open data initiatives and activities across a range of different developing world countries, the infrastructure framing also highlights some useful perspectives and experiences to draw upon – noting that the creation of national infrastructures has often been a space of considerable contestation, corruption and challenge, whilst at the same time being generally recognised as essential for development.

Whilst APPSI do not appear to be terribly strong on outreach and engagement to really spark a debate in the UK over a National Information Framework, I certainly hope this paper does generate more discussion, and thought, about going beyond ad-hoc dataset, but also generates some innovative thinking about how to do that in a way that is not just about central control and planning.


Aside: will a shift to using private data undermine the availability of public data

Paragraph 29 of the APPSI report (LINK) talks about the fact that governments may be able to collect less data, and more of our national information infrastructure may come from private companies. This raises a risk: governments may face a different price for data depending on whether it is for private use within government, or whether it is to be more widely shared and made available. It could end up a lot cheaper to buy in data just for internal use in policy making, with it very expensive to release that data in ways that would let citizens and other actors in the governance arena scrutinise and hold government to account on policy making. If governments access to data for decision making did take this turn, then open policy making may become comparatively more expensive and be undermined.

It is important then for us to be alert when discussion about discontinuing state collection of certain data, in place of buying in that data from private providers, emerge. If the comparison is between the cost of collecting the data, and the of buying in the data just for government use, then the calculations need to be carefully questioned -as the substitution is not like-for-like. In the status quo where government collects data, it can (and increasingly does) share more widely the data upon which policy is based; where government becomes only the holder a license for limited use of a commercially provided dataset the situation is very different.

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Open Data in Developing Countries

The focus of my work is currently on the Exploring the Emerging Impacts of Open Data in Developing Countries (ODDC) project with the Web Foundation.

MSc – Open Data & Democracy

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