Now is the time to defend the public’s right to know

Britain has just attended the Open Government Partnership Summit in Mexico as the world leader on open data policy – a clear winner, now under threat. How come?

Becky Hogge
3 November 2015
The work of the geneal Post Office, London, October 1941.

The work of the General Post Office, London, October 1941. Wikicommons/ Ministry of Information Second World War Official Collection. Some rights reserved

In 2014, Private Eye – the UK’s irreverent and much-loved current affairs magazine – began publishing a series of stories on the extent to which land and property in the UK is owned by companies registered overseas.

The revelations – which included the eye-popping extent to which the owners of London’s most recognisable landmarks and smartest addresses have used offshore tax havens such as the British Virgin Islands to conceal dubious wealth and avoid tax – were made possible by information obtained by Private Eye from HM Land Registry (HMLR) under Freedom of Information law. In total, HMLR released details of over 90,000 titles registered with them between July 2005 and July 2014 by foreign firms.

Later on, when Private Eye went back to HMLR for more data, they were told the first release had been in error. The information on overseas ownership was readily available (in the words of FOI law “reasonably obtainable by other means”), absenting HMLR from its responsibility to provide it under FOI. But in practice, those “other means” involved paying a fee: £11 per overseas company to obtain the unique identifiers (title numbers) for all of their registered property and land, and then a further £3 per title number for the official register entry. In the words of Private Eye the cost of obtaining any further data in bulk “would be reasonable only to the richest anorak with an army of helpers”.

HMLR’s approach turned out to be out of step with Downing Street’s. Speaking on a trip to Singapore in July this year, David Cameron warned there was “no place for dirty money in Britain”, and announced the establishment of a public database of property and land owned by foreign companies that mirrored the dataset HMLR had released to Private Eye “in error”. This data could be made available to the public as soon as the end of 2015. Taken together with measures to establish a public database of the true beneficiaries of anonymous shell companies registered in the UK – announced during the UK’s hosting of the G8 in 2013 – the foreign ownership data could make a significant contribution to the work of slowing illicit financial flows that feed corruption and rob the developing world of its resources.

The land and property data and the measures to improve beneficial ownership transparency around anonymous shell companies are part of a good news story the UK has been leading on for nearly five years. This month, officials from the UK government will convene at the Open Government Partnership Summit in Mexico. They will attend this gathering as the world leaders – according to two separate indices – on open data policy.

But the reticence of HMLR to release crucial data, at least until the prime minister intervened, hints at a twist to this narrative. Indeed, like so much ivy round an oak tree, it is a twist that has climbed up around efforts to free government data and put it in public hands since such efforts began over ten years ago.

Double-sided prospectus

Open data – the policy of releasing data in bulk, machine-readable formats and permitting its use and re-use without restriction – was sold to governments in the mid-noughties on a double-sided prospectus. Open data was sold to governments in the mid-noughties on a double-sided prospectus.  Firstly, it promised to deliver economic growth and public sector savings. Policy advocates argued that governments who wished to thrive in a digital world should not concentrate their resources on producing discrete information products tailored to the specific needs of groups of citizens and consumers, but instead should release their information in raw data form. By doing so, governments would stimulate a market for data re-users (so-called “infomediaries”) that would end up fulfilling those specific needs much better than governments could, and at much less public expense.

Secondly, government open data policies promised to enhance transparency, accountability, and civic participation. The rise of the internet and computer processing power was putting powerful new ways to interrogate and interpret government data in the hands of individuals. A new breed of civil society actor was being born, the “civic hacker”, who could take government data and transform it in ways that enriched the public sphere.

The success of the open data movement in achieving mainstream endorsement and adoption is remarkable. In 2010, I interviewed activists and policymakers as part of an effort to establish the contributing factors to that success, and to learn from them. My conviction at the end of that project was that the policy’s rapid adoption was achieved in the UK due to a collaborative atmosphere among policymakers, civil servants and civic hackers. “Proptech”  attracted an estimated $1.4 billion in investment globally in 2014.

In part, that atmosphere had been enabled by open data’s double-sided appeal. It’s fair to say that open data’s potential to deliver public sector efficiencies and economic growth is often put forward to policymakers by advocates who have not economic but transparency and accountability outcomes at the core of their mission. 

But for the kind of policy this ends up with  witness HMLR. The world’s largest land and property registrar, it already makes part of its records available as open data. The Price Paid Dataset, released by HMLR as open data since 2013, provides information on property transactions between private individuals buying and selling for full market value. In total, the dataset relates to roughly half of the 24 million titles registered at HMLR, themselves covering roughly 80% of the land mass of England and Wales. Its release has had significant impact: estate agencies are testifying about how making data about average house price sales in their area can lubricate the market by making buyers and sellers more comfortable; tech startups using a mix of HMLR data and proprietary sources to inform market players are popping up all over Shoreditch. Such startups (known in the industry as “proptech”) attracted an estimated $1.4 billion in investment globally in 2014.

Institutional resistance

We may yet see vast troves of public data that has both economic and social potential sold off to the highest bidder. What’s missing from Price Paid is information about property and land that has been inherited, that has remained in the hands of families and institutions for hundreds of years, or that has been transacted between corporations. In short, the information about the more powerful members of British society remains shielded from view. And although this may not be a conscious effort by HMLR to protect the interests of the powerful, it certainly underscores the fact that open data as interpreted by HMLR and its political masters, is an economic policy and not an exercise in accountability and transparency.

HMLR is one of four government agencies widely believed to be being considered for privatisation as the current government scrambles for ways to boost the public purse. Together with the Met Office, Ordnance Survey and Companies House, these so-called trading funds have been sticking points in advancing open data policy from the beginning.

Required by law to fund their activities through receipts from the services they provide either as registrars (Companies House, HMLR) or as information providers (Met Office, Ordnance Survey), their business models are to varying degrees in conflict with the idea that information collected by government should be given away for free. It’s clear how open data policy might worry them. Indeed, in 2007, Ordnance Survey hired strategic communications firm Mandate Communications to lobby politicians active in the open data debate. 

This institutional resistance will now feed into plans for privatisation, and may yet see vast troves of public data that has both economic and social potential sold off to the highest bidder. “Public access to public sector data must never be sold or given away again”.In 2013, when the coalition government began the privatisation of Royal Mail, it ignored calls to retain the Postcode Address File – a database of all the delivery points in the UK – in public hands. The resulting sell-off was heavily criticised by Sir Tim Berners Lee, open data champion and co-founder of the UK’s Open Data Institute – and by Parliament’s Public Administrations Committee, whose chair called the move a mistake and cautioned that “public access to public sector data must never be sold or given away again”. 

Hard fight is on

The open data community now faces two challenges. Firstly, and most urgently,  it must win over those at HM Treasury who have yet to accept the economic arguments for putting public data in public hands, in time to rescue the nation’s information infrastructure from privatisation. Rescue the nation’s information infrastructure from privatisation.

Even as a purely economic policy, open data is to some extent a leap of faith. Transport for London (TfL) began releasing their data in 2009 and are now a shining example of the economic benefits of releasing transport data. As well as securing TfL significant internal savings, a 2013 study by Deloitte found that the policy had helped deliver between £15m and £58m in monetised time savings to London’s transport users in 2012 – figures that put the open data policy in league with major transport infrastructure upgrades like HS2, and for miniscule investment by comparison. Yet Vernon Everitt, TfL’s internal open data champion, says that had he been asked to write a traditional transport industry business case for the move, he would still be writing it today.

But the open data community must also recognise the need to go further than the bottom line, to stop masking aspirations for a more transparent and accountable society driven by open government data in the language of economics, and to adopt a more rights-based agenda.

This will be the harder fight, particularly in the context of a government that currently has the Freedom of Information Act under review. But David Cameron’s recent commitments to beneficial ownership transparency and transparency of overseas corporate ownership of land and property indicate that there are buttons waiting to be pushed here too.

In the end, open data is not just an economic policy, it is a democratic imperative. In the digital age, paywalling public information is an affront to our right to know. 

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