14 April 2011

Venue: University College London
Chemistry Lecture Theatre
Christopher Ingold Building [map]
Gordon Street
London, WC1H 0AJ

We all support the idea of protecting personal privacy, at the same time as we want free access to information about public sector nitty-gritty. But sometimes one Good Thing gets in the way of another. Is it right that the Information Commissioner should be the guardian of both rights, or is there a conflict of interest?

While acknowledging that there are tensions between the two, Christopher Graham sees it as a positive advantage to have one Commissioner with a mission to uphold both sets of information rights in the public interest, simultaneously promoting openness by public bodies and data privacy for individuals. In his presentation, he made a convincing show of his determination not to tolerate self-interested secrecy or careless disclosure of personal data. And he pointed to the wisdom of limiting the appointment of the Information Commissioner to a fixed term (five years), effectively liberating him from the compelling need to avoid offending important people.

Carol Tullo’s presentation focused on the public right to data, and for the National Archives (TNA) she set out three policy objectives:

  • Public data publishing in an open and standardized format, so that it can be used easily and with minimal cost by third parties

  • Commitment to implementing a “right to data” in their information strategies, giving the public access to datasets they request

  • Release of core reference data for free re-use from the Public Data Corporation.

An important enabling mechanism is the Open Government Licence, which has already been taken up by the Ordnance Survey, all key departments of state, and an increasing number of local authorities. Carol spoke too about standards for data and metadata, and TNA’s wider efforts to provide leadership in knowledge and information management.

In choosing the subject, “What’s wrong with UK information law” for his presentation, Charles Oppenheim told us he was setting out to be provocative. However, he roamed very cheerfully over the Data Protection Act, the Freedom of Information Act and the Protection of Freedom Bill, without any outbreak of brawling. We all learned a bit about areas where the law could be improved. But did he fire bullets at the Information Commissioner’s Office? No, he complimented their critique of the FOI bill.

Following up on Carol Tullo’s mention of Linked Data, the presentation from our fourth speaker, Paul Davidson, brought some of the general issues closer to home. With examples from his own local authority in Sedgemoor, he showed us what it means in practice to implement the government’s policy aims for Linked Data. It is not enough just to provide any old data set. We also need some common open standards and common infrastructure in order to make open local data meaningful, comparable and linkable.

The Panel Session at the end turned out the best of all, with discerning answers to thoughtful questions. And in the end, that’s what all the information legislation is about. When individuals such as you, me and everyone in our audience can get clear answers to our concerns, and an honest debate of the issues, we feel much happier to be a part of UK society.

Over 100 people registered for this meeting, and at least half of them joined in the networking with wine and nibbles afterwards. As well as the presentations which are now available for downloading, audio recordings will be provided on this site as soon as they are available.

This afternoon meeting was organized by ISKO-UK and Taxonomies in the Public Sector (TiPS) in cooperation with the UCL Department for Information Studies.