SCL Lecture Report: Big and Open Data

March 29, 2013

As with all 40th birthdays, SCL’s recent milestone is an opportunity for the Society to look back at its past but also to look forward to some unknown, uncharted and (perhaps) daunting future frontiers. But the musings of your average 40-year-old would surely appear pedestrian in comparison to the topic selected for SCL’s 40th Anniversary Lecture – Big and Open Data. 

Specifically, the Anniversary Lecture focused on the UK government’s approach to the Open Data revolution. Professor Nigel Shadbolt – who along with Sir Tim Berners Lee is an Information Advisor to the UK Government – gave a passionate and engaging lecture about the government’s Open Data and midata programmes.  

In summary, he suggested that the transparency and accountability of government, as well as government service delivery models, could be improved by forcing the government to open up the data which it collects. Professor Shadbolt believes that, once you open up such data, new social and commercial enterprises and applications will follow to help make sense of the data flood and create value. Professor Shadbolt questioned the extent to which the lawyers in the audience were ready to tackle the issues surrounding these programmes. However, Professor Shadbolt kept his views at quite a high level; he ultimately took the view that English law adopts a balance of harms approach, and that the harm of Big and Open Data has not yet been demonstrated. To many in the audience, that may have been seen as quite a bold statement.  

Questions from the floor attempted to tease out Professor Shadbolt’s thinking on some of the difficulties often associated with Open Data. The quality of data streams was mentioned as a key challenge to organisations (including public authorities). Decisions taken on poor quality data streams could expose organisations to liability. It could also erode consumer confidence: take, for example, a homeowner faced with a higher insurance premium because the data their insurance company used from a crime statistics web site to set their premium turned out to be incorrect. Professor Shadbolt acknowledged the problem, agreeing that it would take time and effort to clean up imperfect data, but argued that good data ultimately drives out bad, with applications peddling poor quality data streams likely to go out of business. 

Another challenge noted involved the proprietary issues which arise where an intellectual property right is associated with data which is released and then used by third parties. Professor Shadbolt noted the concerns of authors and publishers that the government’s programmes could, in some circumstances, undermine their copyright, but believed that it was important to strike a balance. As an example, he noted that much scientific data is ultimately commissioned at the government’s expense, so why shouldn’t the automatic presumption be that this will be made available through the Open Data programme? IP-dependent industries may take issue with that presumption, and it also raises broader issues to do with the challenges surrounding the interpretability of data streams.  

Other challenges with a legal dimension – such as storage, international transfer, security and privacy – were also noted by Professor Shadbolt, but the take home message was that, although these are valid concerns, they should not be used to suppress the drive to Open Data. But for SCL members celebrating the organisation’s 40th, these are likely to be key problem areas to be puzzled over in the coming years.

Scott Allardyce is an Associate working in the Commercial IP/IT Department at Bristows