End Of The World As We Know It?
What is our data? It is any information which the council uses to conduct its business, regardless of the form this information takes. Some of this information will be confidential. Some will not. Confidentiality must be respected. Some of the confidential information could be anonymised. All of this data belongs to us, the people of Brighton & Hove, because it is being collected on our behalf, but cannot be accessed by us. This is largely because of an old fashioned view of data ownership.
Councillor Kitcat was suspended for six months from Brighton & Hove Council by the thieving Tory bastards. His offence? Redistributing official video footage of councillors at a public meeting! He won his appeal against the disciplinary action.
Enter Jason Kitcat, Green Party councillor for Regency ward and Cabinet member for Finance and Central Services on Brighton & Hove City Council. He is a tech-head. Immediately upon the Green Party winning control of Brighton & Hove City Council, he has declared that he wants to open our data! He is a Foundation Coordinator at the Open Knowledge Foundation. Quick off the mark, he has already met with interested people in our digitally advanced city. Regular readers of this blog will recall me criticising Councillor Kitcat for a scaremongering tweets; this time around, I’m pleased to praise him. Prior to the most recent local elections, all four of the parties contesting the seats in Brighton & Hove formally indicated their support for opening our data. However, this issue has been around for a few years and neither the thieving Tory bastards nor the Labour Party did anything about it when they had the chance. The local Liberal Democrats are ahead of their national party, having spent themselves in Brighton & Hove. Without any councillors left, their agreement to anything is irrelevant.
It's going to be a bit more complicated than this.
I am currently considering a complete rewiring of my home. I’ve had one quote so far, which was very expensive. I’ll get other quotes but in the meantime, I’ve investigated the costs of training myself to become an electrician. It looks as though that will be cost effective. To sign off electrical installation work in compliance with the law, it looked as if I would have to become what is known as a Part P competent person. I contacted one of the bodies that oversees Part P competency. They helpfully explained that for someone such as myself, who was only looking to complete one job, it would be cheaper to just ask the local council’s building control to sign off the job. I contacted Building Control at Brighton & Hove City Council. An application to have the work assessed will cost £177.60. There will be a further cost of £85 to have an electrician inspect the works done. I spoke to a surveyor in Brighton & Hove City Council’s Building Control and asked who would inspect the installation. He said that they almost always used a firm called JP Garretts. Specifically, I wanted to know at what stage in the installation they would inspect the work and to what extent I would have leave the job exposed for inspection. Obviously, the surveyor from the local authority could not tell me. He suggested that I call JP Garretts and I will do. Since JP Garretts will obviously use a form to tick off whether each aspect of the installation has been tested properly, I asked him if the council then had sight of such a form. The surveyor confirmed that they did. I asked him if I could see the form. He said he could not provide it due to “data protection”. I pointed out that I did not want to see a completed form, which had someone else’s private data on it and that there could be no data protection issues with a blank form. He changed tack and told me that the council could not provide it because to do so would constitute “advice”.
This nonsense is typical of the data culture we currently have. Government, whether local or central, is steeped in obfuscation of facts from the public. The officers of the state (I do not blame the surveyor I spoke to) are trained to believe that this sort of information must be withheld from us. It may be that JP Garretts will let me have sight of this form but I shouldn’t have to make that further enquiry. The council has the form and could give it to me. Without the form, completing my electrical work will be akin to taking an examination in some subject I have trained in but without knowing what the syllabus is! With the form, I will be in a position to know that I will pass the inspection the first time around. Having the form does not allow me to cheat but it does allow me to save costs. JP Garretts are a subcontractor for the City council. The City council serves me, a constituent in the City. There is no reason at all why I couldn’t be given access to the form. It may even assist me in choosing which electrical installation courses I consider paying for in the first place. Simply, this form is data held on my behalf which I am being prevented from seeing. Sharing this data with me is not “advice” other than the council stating, “this is the form currently being used to check electrical installations”. There’s no reason why the council can’t share that data with me or anyone else. No wonder that people let the state behave like their nanny when so many times we are told we can’t know something…
Opening data saves money
The extent to which Councillor Kitcat and the rest of his Green comrades on the council manage to open our data remains to be seen. It is a big project to begin with but will save money because local enterprises will produce information from that data which the local authority could not otherwise manage, owing to the pressing nature of its other business. If you doubt that public money will be saved, there are plenty of examples from the other side of the pond. Here’s one interesting case study. Briefly, there is a techie proverb, which sums up how money gets saved and problems cured by the open data approach. It is known as Linus’s Law: “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”. In other words, if lots of us are looking at something, there won’t be any hiding places left for problems. The point being that we shouldn’t have to even ask for the data. We need to just access it. I shouldn’t even have had to telephoned the local authority’s Building Control after 2:30pm when the surveyors where back at their desks from their morning appointments. A properly organised open data system would simply have meant me tracking down the approved electrical installation inspection form online. The fact that this form has been created by one of my local authority’s subcontractors is irrelevant. A properly organised system would require blank copies of all inspection forms to be provided by subcontractors to the local authority to be put online for the citizens. How many other Brightonians might choose to train, complete their own work and save themselves money if this information was freely available?