We have data coming out of our ears.
Every minute of the day Google receives over 2,000,000 search queries, Facebook users share 684,478 pieces of content, YouTube users upload 48 hours of new video, and Apple receives close to 47,000 app downloads. So much data in fact that more information has been generated in the last 5 years than in the entire history of humankind.
And yet it continues to arouse misgivings. Indeed, the only thing that keeps pace with the accumulation of data is our suspicion of it. The very word is synonymous with surreptitious activities, evoking images of WikiLeaks, lost USB sticks on trains and GCHQ encroachment in the minutiae of our lives. A study by Ipsos MORI found that close to 60 per cent of people lack confidence in companies and public bodies to keep their data secure.
Little wonder then that last month's announcement that the data collected at GPs surgeries would be tracked and stored in one place has caused so much consternation. The Guardian’s tech reporter John Naughton has described these plans as a “data grab”, where all of our most intimate information will be stored in a “giant server farm”. The feelings appear to be shared by GPs, with one survey indicating that 4 in 10 plan to withhold their patients’ data.
Time will tell whether they will act on their words. But their caginess at just the prospect of sharing information is fundamentally bad news for those extolling the opportunities of open data – and they really are opportunities. Only last year, for instance, the recently established Open Data Institute in partnership with the medical activist Ben Goldacre used the existing available datasets to identify £200m worth of potential savings on statin prescriptions. Likewise, a study by the Society for Cardiothoracic Surgery suggests that mortality in coronary artery surgery had fallen by a fifth as a result of public reporting of individual surgeon outcomes.
There is obviously a huge financial imperative here. The NHS faces the monumental task of catering to the needs of an ageing population while simultaneously finding £20bn worth of efficiency savings by the end of 2015. And it’s the same story across the whole of the public sector. Government departmental spending is set to fall by nearly 19 percent in real terms between 2010-11 and 2017-18, while the budgets of local authorities are being cut by a third over the spending review period. If there was ever a time for using data to pinpoint efficiency opportunities then it’s now.
But the value of open data goes way beyond finance. It’s also about boosting accountability and legitimacy in a world where our trust in the political class is at its lowest ebb. Indeed, holding people to account was one of the first major uses of open data as we know it. MySociety, the dons of democratic data, got the ball rolling with sites like TheyWorkForYou and WhatDoTheyKnow, which use Parliamentary data to keep voters abreast of their MPs activities.
Yet where open data is most powerful is in helping people to improve their own decision-making– from finding out the best schools to send their kids, to identifying the most efficient transport route to and from work, to deciding which neighbourhood is the safest in which to live. Apps that crunch and visualise this kind of data are now ten a dozen, and increasingly they are catering to very niche audiences. A good example is Where's This From?, a new app which enables ethical food shoppers to find out about the welfare and hygiene standards of meat producers.
All of which begs the question of why so many people fear the distribution of open data. Of course, there are genuine concerns over privacy: anonymised data can often be traced back to individuals by piecing together information from different datasets. But surely the enormous potential of open data outweighs the costs (within reason).
The real problem here is that not enough has been done to raise awareness among the wider public about the opportunities that data presents. The government has focused its efforts on the supply side by adding lots of data to places like data.gov.uk, but seemingly ignores the demand side. There is a misplaced assumption that everybody knows what data is, and how useful it can be. Yet that’s not the case at all. And even when people are aware of open data, many don’t think of it as relevant or meaningful to their lives or of those around them; it’s just something that people in tech city fawn over. And therein lies the rub.
So maybe we can start by wrestling open data back from the realm of the geeks, and getting more people involved in the conversation.
Follow Ben Dellot on Twitter: www.twitter.com/BenedictDel