In December 2011, Version 1.0 of “Information Principles for the UK Public Sector” (pdf) was published by the Cabinet Office. The principles have been endorsed by both the CIO and CTO councils within government. What surprised me is how good this document is.
The approach taken recognises that the principles will be implemented in diverse ways according to the context. It is well written and full of material which strikes me as being widely applicable (not just to government bodies) in addition to containing a number of points that indicate a progressive attitude to information. In particular, “Principle 4 – Information is Standardised and Linkable”, gives me cause to nod with approval.
The standards message is not, of course, a new one for The Government; it is the inclusion of “linkable” in a principle that will be applied across government activities which is. This is not simply “linked data is cool” expressed in Civil Service Speak; the principle is deeper than that and speaks to me of a possible paradigm shift in the way [collected] data is understood.
Under Implications for Information Strategy, it recommends “a framework for linking information is established” and goes on to say:
“Aspects to consider include:
- Unambiguous identification of items (eg using authoritative reference data, or URIs)
- Classifying items and the relationships between them.
- Linking of items (eg potentially using the open standard web mechanisms governed by the W3C)
Consideration should be given to both internal linkages to other information sources within the organisation, and also to external linkages to other information sources across government.”
In essence, I see this as being indicative of a shift away from conceiving of data as “stuff in databases” and towards “distributed data on the network”. I see this as being a Really Big Deal and significantly more sophisticated than the piecemeal publication of data seen so far (even on data.gov.uk, which remains an important innovation).
By itself, of course, Principle 4 achieves nothing but two recent events and the Principle add up to suggest that this is not just a pipe-dream.
The first event, which is a culmination of several priors, was the initiation of the in-elegantly, but accurately. named “Interim Regulatory Partnership Group: Project B, Redesigning the higher education data and information landscape”. While this project is only at present deliberating on a feasibility report, a bit of imagination of where this might go with some inspiration from the Reports and Documents (e.g. the “HE Information Landscape Study“, pdf) leads towards making more use of distributed collected data. Maybe I am making a leap too far but a combination of reducing data collection burden with principles of collect-once-use-many-times inevitably leads to linking data between (among others) UCAS, the Student Loans Company and HESA since it is inconceivable to me that we would not have a multi-party landscape.
The second, more recent, event was the occasion of a discussion with a member of the Technical Support Service of the Information Standards Board for education skills and children’s services (ISB TSS) from which I understand the intention is to assign URIs to entities in the standards the ISB TSS creates. Only a small step but…
My take-home message on all of this: nothing will happen very quickly but the gradual permeation of an understanding of the implications of distributed data on the network will make possible conversations, decisions and interventions that are currently rather difficult and the drivers behind Project B are also drivers that will, I hope, accelerate this process.