Information sharing in the Big Society

In one of my past lives I ran an information and mapping business – Land Management Information Service (LaMIS) – which took a new approach to public information.  I think my experience may have some application to the idea of the Big Society.

The idea was this.  Government (and its agencies and local authorities) hold massive quantities of spatial data – data which has

  • a significant value to them in discharging their functions;
  • a certain amount of value to the wider public (in the interests of openness and accountability);
  • a commercial value to some business sectors;
  • and a specific, quite different, non-monetary value to the people who own, manage and make their living from the land to which the data relates.

I set up LaMIS for the last of these groups in particular.  We offered a simple mapping software product, including aerial photography, OS mapping, environmental data and measurement and recording tools.  (These were the days just before Google Earth, and many of my farming customers still only had dialup broadband access.)

LaMIS had two purposes – one, to offer affordable mapping software to the small and medium farmer; and two, to recognise and support the changing relationship between farmers and the wider public.  The political climate in the wake of the Curry Report was about farmers delivering not just food and fibre but public goods.  We had Rights of Way Improvement Plans; AONB Management Plans; a new right to roam; two new National Parks.  We had a new Environmental Stewardship scheme; we had a complete overhaul of the Common Agricultural Policy.  Everything was about the farmer providing public benefit.  How on earth were they supposed to do that without having access to the basic information held about their land?

The idea was good.  LaMIS enjoyed modest success for a few years, and I found myself doing a lot of business with parish and town councils as well as farmers and landowners.  (Same sort of scenario as farmers.  Small, under-resourced organisations, meant to provide a lot of small-scale local public benefits, but no access to the data, and not a hope of affording commercial mapping software.)

But the business went under in 2007 for two main reasons.  The first was that we just didn’t have the capital to sustain and develop the business.  The second was the attitude I encountered in many – not all, but many – local authorities towards sharing their data.

I wrote a discussion paper on it at the time, which I hoped – in the days before bloggery – might help to get a sensible debate under way.  (Please do read it – it has a lot of detail that I don’t need to replicate here.)  After a debate at the RSA in 2006 I was interviewed in the Guardian.  But the attitude remained.

Why bring it up now?  I was talking to a colleague last week who asked me about LaMIS, and I was trying to explain where it sat in the spectrum of commercial activity and public interest.  Sounds like a job for the Big Society, he said.  First catch your data, said I.

He’s right, mind you.  I’ve been out of the business for three and a half years ago, but I’m assuming there is still a demand for the kind of data LaMIS used to offer (any comments from colleagues in rural businesses?); and if so, I can see huge potential for a new kind of service based on today’s technology.  The trick is going to be unlocking the data resource.

The thing is that, if – if – this attitude is still present in the public sector, it’ll blow a hole below the waterline of the Big Society.  If it means anything, Big Society surely has to mean specialist groups delivering specialist solutions to local need (whether the need is ‘local’ to an area or to a particular sub-group of society).  As I know to my cost, when you’re trying to do this with limited resources, you can either spend your time ticking the accountability boxes of public sector monitoring mechanisms, or you can get on and do the job you need to do.  There aren’t enough hours in the night to do both.

Clearly, environmental information for farmers is pretty small-scale, peripheral and specialist, compared to the other social goods that the Big Society is supposed to deliver; but if we cannot break the compulsion for control that I encountered during my time with LaMIS, none of that wider agenda will come about.

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5 Responses to Information sharing in the Big Society

  1. An interesting article. From a different perspective I have also had some involvement in understanding and working with mixed sources of spatial data.
    Where I found my thought going as I read the article was actually that if the Big Society (a narrative that I’m not sure has survived its crass merger with public sector cuts) is being seriously entertained by gov’t then a lot of the data sources should, in my opinion, become open source. In other words, the Big Society should enjoy some intellectual property gifts from government. With empowerment and obligation comes some of the tools to make this successful.

    Mapping sources are a good example – as is meteorological data. I suggest that the Ordnance Survey is a sunk resource as a government agency; it’s strategically important so that even if the public stopped buying maps and the commercial arm failed, the OS would still be required for all manner of national and local services to operate.

    So why not make digital OS maps and other data maintained by public organisations open source, providing it doesn’t erode someone’s security? The number of businesses and volunteer groups that would benefit would be considerable, after all, increasingly it’s what you do with the data that’s significant.

    So – if we are being urged to become more active as citizens and embrace the Big Society, and we fancy doing this as a small enterprise or volunteer organisation, what things should gov’t (local and national) equip us with that it previously denied?

  2. If you’re interested in this topic then you may find the work NESTA has been doing useful too:

    http://www.nesta.org.uk/areas_of_work/public_services_lab/make_it_local

  3. Ben Bennetts says:

    Melanie: Thank you for the link to NESTA – some interesting stuff there. Two things strike me, though: firstly NESTA’s work seems to be very much about using local authority data to help deliver local authorities’ core business, or at least to do something that the authorities want to do. My problem was with authorities who didn’t want to or see the need to co-operate – as often as not, because they saw LaMIS as peripheral to their core business. (My original 2007 paper goes into this in more detail.)

    The second point that strikes me from NESTA is a bit off-topic. I see as lot of talk of community innovation, neighbourhood challenge etc, but it all seems to revolve around geographic neighbourhoods rather than communities of specialist interest or need. (Anyone else hear Henry Hemming on the subject?).

    Clive – I agree very much with your argument that “the Big Society should enjoy some intellectual property gifts from government”, particularly where that IP is created as part of the public sector’s core business rather than on a commercial basis. Rights of way data and archaeological records are a case in point.

    I’m not sure the argument can be made to stack up for the OS, though. I was something of an object of curiosity at the RSA/Guardian Free Our Data debate in ’06 for not joining in the gleeful OS-bashing of the majority of the crowd. The thing is that, for better or worse, OS is set up as a commercial enterprise (albeit with I think around 50% of its revenues in the form of long-term contracts with the public sector). MasterMap was developed not because Government told OS to do it, nor even because Government paid for it, but as a commercial product which OS was able to licence to Government.

    I’m no apologist for OS, but I honestly think we’re better off with a world-class, commercially viable national mapping agency than most other countries with different models (including, incidentally, the US). Make the data open source, and the organisation and its data would, I suspect, fall over pretty rapidly.

    I believe that OS’s thinking has moved on significantly from where it was four years ago, but the new Public Sector Mapping Agreement still appears to have some frustrating restraints, e.g. its reference to public bodies’ ‘core business’. Here I do think there is room for a wider ‘public benefit’ approach which allows for the flexibility inherent in the idea of the Big Society.

  4. Hi Ben – If you want to find out more about NESTA if you get in touch I would be happy to share with you my experience about being part of their spreading Green Ideas, Big Green Diffusion project, i.e. replicating @bricksandbread & other community enterprises – more info here – http://tinyurl.com/6yjv4p6

  5. Perhaps I chose a bad example with the OS – I agree that it is world class and wouldn’t want to compromise the quality. That said, it isn’t an entirely commercial operation and where government money goes in, some pro bono products should come out? I live in a listed building which is trying to fall down quicker than I can repair it, and I when I plan repairs I have to make an application and occasionally am charged for a site map. I find this rather irksome as I am arguably making a very uncomplicated use of a public resource. Again, I assert that the big society should be about empowering people to do impressive or altruistically minded things and I’m in favour of removing as many blockers as possible. My industry is spectacularly good at bluffing about what the cloud is (my company is rather better!) but amongst many things it’s a platform that enables you to ‘catch your data’ with greater ease – so the technology is increasingly there to support such empowerment. What needs to disappear is petty arbitrage over data that should arguably be in the public domain?

    Archaeological data is an interesting one. Where public money pays for excavation, watching briefs, etc then arguably there is a public right to the raw data and perhaps the finds. As an archaeology student a few years ago I dug up a rather nice half of a quern. I bet it’s gathering dust somewhere (it was a local authority funded dig on public land) and it would be great if that were in a school along with some flints and a bit of ironwork…

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