“I don’t feel confident,” said a somewhat honest Axelle Lemaire, France’s Minister of State for Digital Affairs and Innovation, on replying to a question from the chair Martha Lane Fox. Lemaire, speaking at the ODI Summit at the British Film Institute on London’s South Bank, was asked how she felt about the future of open data. Her reply surprised a few people, especially as she was preaching to the converted, a gathering of open data adopters and committed evangelists.
So why the sad face?
“I don’t feel confident because of the political times,” Lemaire continued. “If we enter this period with just technology, there is no empowerment. So it is political and therefore highly threatened. It has to be a choice. We have to ask ourselves ‘what kind of democracy do we want?’”
Given that France enacted its Digital Republic Bill at the beginning of October Lemaire could be forgiven for being a little smug. Far from it. She is worried about security, the threat of political instability and the impact this will have on the funding needed to drive cultural change throughout France’s public sector. And yet, France has managed a huge leap with its Bill, something which the UK has watched closely and experts feel we should now follow.
A need for transparency
The UK’s own Digital Economy Bill has come in for some criticism, not least from the ODI. ODI CEO Jeni Tennison, who was recently called before a Commons Select Committee says that the Bill is lacking, certainly in terms of clarity on Government open data and personal data use.
“We’d like to see more transparency around what existing measures there are inside government for data sharing and how these measures fit with existing ones, so people can really get to grips with the way data is flowing through government,” she said.
So what does she think of the French approach? Tennison says she particularly liked the clarity in the Bill on open data use but also the encouragement of private-sector organisations who work with the public sector to make data open.
“It’s interesting because it’s a pattern we are starting to see in the UK but not laid down in law,” says Tennison, adding that business sectors from banks and bus companies are among those being actively encouraged by Government to open data for public use.
So should the UK follow the French lead on digital legislation?
“Yes,” said the two Sirs, Tim Berners-Lee and Nigel Shadbolt, sharing the stage at the BFI’s Studio room.
“It’s an impressive piece of legislation and enshrines in law all we believe in,” said Shadbolt, a principal at Jesus College, Oxford University and professor of artificial intelligence. “Everything from posthumous dealing with your data through to presuming certain parts of data should be open and public. I think there has always been a sense that in this area there is a bit of a race to the top between countries that are trying to learn from each other to achieve efficiencies, generate economic and social value – we’ve got great evidence here and at a moment where we are all looking around and wondering what next, we’ve actually got proposals to work between UK and French governments – to actually look at what we can do.
“Whatever happens with Brexit we are still going to be working together in the digital realm to create some concrete steps forward and the Bill enshrines some very useful precepts. Our public data principles have some of them but this clear commitment not to sell public good assets that are part of our national infrastructure is very powerful.”
The Franco British Data Taskforce was launched last year. Lemaire said Matthew Hancock, the UK’s Minister of State for Digital Policy, is due in France in the next couple of weeks to look at the country’s plans for implementing the new digital legislation but to also announce a common roadmap.
According to Lemaire, the notion of open data being a part of infrastructure is at the heart of the bi-lateral plan and yet while talks continue there is still uncertainty. It’s almost as if Hancock has been given a brief and kept busy ticking boxes and giving nods in the right direction while the rest of the government tuts and looks the other way.
The UK Bill was last debated on October 11 with no mention of the French Bill. There are still concerns around transparency and the ODI is well aware of the current Government’s slow down on open data. Have we perhaps reached a crisis point for the open data movement? There were certainly concerns about future funding from a variety of public funded projects attending the ODI event, concerns about the continued effects of austerity measures, the falling pound and Brexit.
The answer from Lane Fox, co-founder of Lastminute.com and now a UK digital luminary? To resort to a bit of Churchill.
“Never let a crisis go to waste,” she said.
That’s all very well but until Governments start to realise that data is a new, essential infrastructure for citizens it will always come under pressure from economics.
“Infrastructure costs money,” said Shadbolt on the question of funding pressure. “This idea that you don’t have to invest in an infrastructure believing it will just take care of itself is just a weird idea.”
Of course it is, but there again there is a lot of weird stuff happening. Brexit is weird, how Theresa May became Prime Minister is weird and to be honest, open data projects can sometimes be weird. The sooner open data starts proving it can earn governments the money the better.
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