How open is the Cabinet Office’s open data funding programme?
Post: 2 April 2014
Back in February I wrote a post about UK open data funding programmes. I had some outstanding questions, mainly about the £1.5 million in “Release of Data Fund” allocations announced on 21 February, so I followed up with a Freedom of Information request to the Cabinet Office.
In the FOI request I asked for the individual amounts allocated to each proposal, details of who received the money, and also for a copy of any documents that set out the most recent criteria for eligibility, selection or prioritisation of bids for allocation of amounts from the fund.
Yesterday the Cabinet Office and BIS released a joint press release about the Release of Data Fund and the separate Breakthrough Fund, along with an application form for organisations who want to apply for funding from the 2014/15 rounds. There’s also a Cabinet Office blog post.
So have we learned anything new?
My earlier post seems to have been broadly correct as an outline of the various sources of open data funding.
Neither the February announcement nor the statement yesterday represent new funding for open data. However it is useful to have official clarification of what’s available, and a single point of entry into the application processes for the two main funds.
Cabinet Office has confirmed that the Release of Data Fund is the previous DSB fund under a new name, but it’s clear there has been a substantial drift in the stated purpose of that fund (as discussed in my earlier post).
Although there are still some differences, the purposes of the Release of Data Fund now closely resemble those of the Breakthrough Fund administered by BIS. For the 2014/15 funding rounds Cabinet Office has basically adopted (with some refinements) the application process that had already been established for the Breakthrough Fund.
How were the 2013/14 Release of Data Fund allocations awarded?
This is the problematic area. It’s apparent from the Cabinet Office note that the process of collecting bids for the 2013/14 funding round was informal and unpublicised.
Cabinet Office says the ODUG (an advisory group of volunteers selected by Cabinet Office) collected bids starting in January, which suggests a very short window of opportunity. According to a Yorkshire Post story on the Leeds Data Mill allocation, “civil servants invited founder Mark Barrett to pitch for the funding.”
I don’t know enough about public sector procurement to judge whether this process broke any rules — some of the allocations are internal to government, and the others may be below the relevant financial threshold for competitive tendering. In any case Cabinet Office has now put in place a public application process for future funding rounds, so there’s probably little to gain by getting Margaret Hodge involved.
However the optics are pretty bad. Given the uninspired nature of the most of the bids approved for 2013/14, I am sceptical whether ODUG tried very hard to canvass the open data community for worthwhile projects or ideas. It rather looks as if Cabinet Office just wanted to make a big funding announcement for Open Data Day.
How open is the 2014/15 Release of Data Fund application process?
Making an application form available online is obviously preferable to the unpublicised process used to allocate the first £1.5 million from the Release of Data Fund. However I have several concerns:
The deadlines for applications are very short: 14 May 2014 and 16 July 2014. Worse, those deadlines are buried in the application form and have not been highlighted on the landing page.
Eligible projects have to be finished by March 2015. I struggle to find any rationale for this, other than the obvious political benefit to the Government of being able to announce completed projects prior to the General Election.
It’s also unclear how the increasingly neglected data request process on Data.gov.uk fits in with the new Release of Data Fund application process. The ODUG involvement in both seems to be similar. But now that the original ambition to “buy back” important datasets from the trading funds has been largely abandoned, is there any point in contributing to business cases for release of those datasets?
The Release of Data Fund, like the Breakthrough Fund, may be useful for helping public authorities over the smaller hurdles. However Cabinet Office still seems to lack a strategy for addressing the real barrier to open release of important public datasets: the trading fund model and other existing revenue-driven licensing operations within government.
Image credits: money texture derived from an OKFN Open Buttons image, CC BY 3.0; CGI render by me.