Can there be reciprocity for open data?

Analysis: An assertion by the London Assembly Transport Committee has raised questions about whether organisations should ask for something in return for opening up their data

Some members of the London Assembly stirred up the city’s open data nest last week. One of the stand-out points of its Transport Committee’s report on technology was the assertion that Transport for London (TfL) should aim for reciprocity in obtaining data from anyone that uses its own.

'Open data' in Scrabble piecesIt threw an element of contention into TfL’s flagship open data policy – which it has claimed provides big benefits for London’s economy – and raised a broader question of whether the idea of reciprocity can work within the open data movement.

The news drew some sceptical reactions on Twitter, but Keith Prince, chair of the committee that published the report, claims it would serve a public purpose by helping TfL to fill in gaps in its own data. He points in particular to transport app developer City Mapper.

“The amount of data they have is far more detailed and accurate than what comes from the Oyster card,” he says. “TfL is trying to plug the gaps by second guessing, and that’s not the same as knowing someone logged on at a certain place and location and know where you end up.

“TfL provides all the data free of charge, and I don’t disagree with that, but why don’t they ask for reciprocal data back on a regular basis?”

Precise movements

He says some apps can effectively follow people from door to door – more precise than movements that can be traced through the Oyster – and the relevant data, which should be anonymised, would help TfL greatly in its operational and strategic planning.

“Information is power. TfL knows fewer people are riding on buses, and if they were able to know where someone began and ended a journey they could do much better modelling and have a better idea of how to satisfy the needs of passengers.”

Some of the evidence presented in the report, which emphasises the importance of app based schemes in London’s transport infrastructure, supports Prince’s position. It cites a contribution from a Professor Kamargianna in saying there should be a two-way flow of data, especially from on-demand services that provide more insights into people’s movements.

Similarly, Chris Lane, head of transport innovation at Transport for West Midlands, said data from the apps can be more precise than from travel cards, and this can help to deal with some inefficient parts of the transport system. He acknowledged, however, that the companies might see it as their commercial intellectual property.

TfL has so far stood back from any debate on the issue, although it did issue a statement in response to the overall report that highlighted areas of work including open data. But the committee’s assertion has prompted a sceptical response from the Open Data Institute (ODI).

Wrong place

“It’s a good starting point, but where they’re recommending going is the wrong place,” says its policy director Peter Wells. “They’re looking at the data release rather than other mechanisms for getting access to the data, and only seem to be thinking of TfL as a potential user of the data.

“Wider civil society is involved in debates about traffic flow, and so are businesses, because if they could see traffic flow around the city it could help them spot the opportunities and build new services.”

He says this would undermine the point of opening up data and, equally importantly, get in the way of the innovation that has already proved its worth. London’s transport system has been among the major beneficiaries so far.

“If you put extra conditions like reciprocity, then strictly speaking it is not open data, it breaches the Open Definition (data that anyone can access, use or share),” he says. “Also, by putting those definitions on it you’re making it more likely people will have to consult lawyers or product managers about what they should do with data, so it slows down and reduces the innovation.

“You’ve added a bit of friction to the process and it ends up reducing the benefits.

“France has a lot of clauses like this around reciprocal arrangements on city data, and you don’t see the same innovation that we have in the UK.”

Other approaches

But he suggests there are other ways than a condition in the licence in which an organisation can get a visible return from its open data. It could be in the operating licence for a company subject to regulations, with a clause saying it is expected to share some data or publish it openly.

Another approach is to encourage them to do it voluntarily. He points to operators of sports and leisure centres doing this through the openactive.io website, which is coordinated by the ODI, as they see it can ultimately attract more customers.

There has also been progress here, albeit more controversially, with the Open Banking movement, under which companies share access to customer accounts when they have consent. This is claimed to provide a route to new products and services and to create a more competitive market.

Wells says there are other potential models for a two-way flow of data.

“It could be there is a level of data the city needs to make decisions but it is so hard to get it across without risking individual privacy.

“But the city could be a steward that takes the more detailed data, looks after it for various services, and possibly aggregates it to publish what it knows so other people can use it and get involved in the debate.”

Existing efforts

He also says that, in the case of transport, plenty of operators are already opening up data, pointing to the role of the digital platforms such as transportapi and Waze.

It leaves the impression that the term ‘open data’ is incompatible with attaching any strings; but that there is scope for organisations to find ways to receive data from others that have used it for an additional service. There can be issues around intellectual property and confidentiality to be overcome, but if all involved go along with the public service ethos it provides a good starting point.

Wells sums up: “It’s about getting these organisations together, finding a common problem, and realising it’s in their common interest to tackle the problem by making the data more open.”

Image by justgrimes, CC BY-SA 2.0 through flickr