Sunday, 19 May 2013

Shakespeare's take on property

Stephan Shakespeare, the founder of  YouGov, has published An Independent Review of Public Sector Information.

His idea is that we can expand the economy and increase general wellbeing if a cadre of brilliant data scientists is given access to the huge amounts of public sector information (PSI) held by the UK government. He also has his sights set on our personal data – open that data to being processed, and intelligent lifestyle decisions can be made for us by apps.

Who does this data belong to?

Shakespeare is consistent – the data belongs to "the citizen", "the public", "citizens":
  1. My recommendations fall into five basic themes ... defining the principles of ownership: it all belongs to the citizen, not to the government (p.6)
  2. We should remain firm in the principle that publicly-funded data belongs to the public (p.6)
  3. Simply put, the strategy is ... Recognise in all we do that PSI, and the raw data that creates it, was derived from citizens, by their own authority, was paid for by them, and is therefore owned by them. It is not owned by employees of the government. All questions of what to do with it should be dealt with by the principle of getting the greatest value back to citizens, with input not just from experts but also citizens and markets. This should be obvious, but the fact that it needs to be constantly reaffirmed is illustrated by the way that even today, access to academic research that has been paid for by the public is deliberately denied to the public, and to many researchers, by commercial publishers, aided by university lethargy, and government reluctance to apply penalties; thereby obstructing scientific progress. (p.9)
  4. The strategy should explicitly embrace the idea that all PSI is derived from and paid for by the citizen and should therefore be considered as being owned by the citizen. It is the therefore the duty of government to make PSI as open as possible to create the maximum value to the nation. (p.11)
  5. Data that is derived from the activity of citizens must be seen as being at least co-owned by them and returning value to them, though the investment of business in collecting and processing the data should also be respected. There are government initiatives such as Midata, a government led project that works with businesses to give consumers better access to the electronic personal data that companies hold about them. The project recognises that data about citizens belongs to them and that they should have a way of claiming and using their ownership. Midata is currently about empowering consumers – government itself should explicitly embrace the Midata initiative to empower citizens by returning key data it holds on citizens back to them (pp.17-8)
Data is valuable. A business that takes that raw material and adds value to make a profit should pay for it. If they don't pay for it, then its ownership is being expropriated from the people it belongs to. We don't expect that. Most businesses pay for their raw materials. There is no reason to make an exception here.

The implication is clear. Any businesses which exploit the public's data should pay a licence to use it and/or they should pay a PSI tax (public sector information) and the licence fees and PSI tax payments collected by the Exchequer should be used to reduce personal income tax and employees' National Insurance payments.

Strikingly, that is not Shakespeare's conclusion. He says:
  • This data, to optimise its value to society, must be open, shareable and, where practical, it should be free (p.7)
  • Some good progress has been made in opening up data for public sector sharing and reuse. But restrictive licensing, applied to key PSI, limits the opportunity for businesses, especially SMEs, to make effective use of PSI as an underpinning business resource. (p.13)
Shakespeare starts from an Obamaesque you-didn't-build-that-bridge position but finishes by expropriating the public because otherwise "businesses, especially SMEs" would have their opportunities limited.

He may be right. Even so, it's a remarkable change of direction during the exposition of his recommendations – one minute the data belongs to the public and next minute it doesn't.

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