Whatever happened to Information Asset Registers?
One of the challenges of trying to unlock public data for re-use is actually identifying data sets held by Government departments and agencies.
Whatever your area of interest, you have to know the data exists before you can argue for its release.
So what we need in the UK is a comprehensive inventory of structured data assets held by the public sector. Obviously.
Data.gov.uk website should serve that function, but it doesn’t. Data.gov.uk is just a big bucket for meta data. Public bodies can throw in pretty much what they like, or not.
There’s no requirement that public bodies register all of their data assets on Data.gov.uk. Even when they do register their data the standard of curation is highly variable.
The Open Data White Paper published by the Cabinet Office in June mentions a “workstrand” to establish a government data inventory. However it’s presented only as an additional feature that could be supported by the Data.gov.uk site.
What’s missing is any evidence of forward movement on a protocol. Government departments and agencies must be required to prepare or provide their own inventories of data assets. This is surely an essential step in the construction of a Government-wide inventory.
This is a matter for the cross-departmental Senior Officials’ Group on Transparency. However minutes of that group’s meetings make only a vague reference to plans for a workshop session on the subject.
The White Paper also suggests the Cabinet Office sees the proposed data inventory principally as a way to facilitate future publication and prioritisation of data sets. That creates a risk the inventory will be composed mainly of data sets departments are minded to make available for re-use, in support of their policy agendas.
That will only perpetuate the existing weakness of the Data.gov.uk approach. To be legitimate an inventory should disclose, in a politically neutral manner, all data assets held by public bodies.
Information Asset Registers
This brings us to Information Asset Registers and the question of which individual departments already hold and/or publish their own data inventories.
Information Asset Registers (IARs) were introduced by the previous Government in a 1999 white paper, The Future Management of Crown Copyright. The IAR concept was one of a number of initiatives aimed at “improving and encouraging access to the broad range of public sector information”.
(That’s right, kids. The Transparency Agenda wasn’t invented by Francis Maude and the Coalition. They just made it cool.)
In a nutshell the IAR is a mechanism to help an organisation understand and manage its information assets. It records the assets, their ownership, any business requirements and technical dependencies, etc.
An IAR might require its own database system or it might be a simple spreadsheet. That depends on the particular needs of the organisation.
National Archives continue to suggest the use of IARs as part of its guidance on digital continuity. However in its guidance on Information Principles, published late last year, the Cabinet Office clearly regards IARs only as a helpful concept.
Government departments are currently required to demonstrate nothing more than a “defined approach” for “consistently identifying, categorising and cataloguing information assets and their purpose”. There’s no expectation departments will necessary maintain a formal asset register and publish it.
Some years ago OPSI ran a project to build a central database of Information Asset Registers. The database was called Inforoute.
By 2008 Inforoute was providing searchable online access to information on data sets held by at least 18 Government department and agencies. The Inforoute project also coordinated and monitored progress on development of IARs across the public sector.
From outside Government it’s difficult to trace exactly what happened to the Inforoute project. Archived reports only tell half the story.
It’s possible the previous Government intended to fold Inforoute into the newly launched Data.gov.uk, but that the Coalition abandoned it. That’s what happened to other strands of work on public sector information initiated under Labour.
It may be symptomatic of how little progress has been made on IARs since then that, even today, several Government department websites still link to a non-functional archived version of the Inforoute interface.
Which departments publish IARs?
In June, 17 Government departments published their Open Data Strategies. Almost all mention the Government’s Information Principles and in particular Principle 1 - Information is a Valued Asset. Only a few mention Information Asset Registers.
The rest of this post consists of my notes on availability of Information Asset Registers or data inventories from those 17 Government departments. In particular I’ve reviewed the Open Data Strategies and information provided on department websites.
But first, some kittens. (Hey, you try to find an appropriate image to illustrate a post on Information Asset Registers.)
Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG)
DCLG’s Open Data Strategy doesn’t mention an IAR. Its website briefly explains what an IAR is, and links to the defunct Inforoute database.
Archived information indicates that as of 2008 DCLG was one of the departments with IAR records accessible via Inforoute.
Result: DCLG had an IAR under the previous Government but does not maintain one now.
Department for Work and Pensions (DWP)
DWP’s Open Data Strategy doesn’t mention an IAR. Its website explains what an IAR is, and links to the defunct Inforoute database for further information.
DWP’s website also includes a page indicating it began an IAR in 2002 and that it is updated on an “ongoing” basis. However that page hasn’t changed for at least the past two years.
Result: It’s possible someone conscientious at DWP is keeping an IAR up-to-date, but I’d be surprised. There’s no published IAR available.
Department for International Development (DfID)
DfID’s Open Data Strategy states: “We have an Information Asset Register that assigns responsibilities for each asset to an Information Asset Owner.” No reference to an IAR on its live website, but archived versions mention DfID’s participation in Inforoute.
Result: DfID is maintaining an IAR, probably as a normal part of its IT security strategy, but doesn’t publish it.
The Home Office’s Open Data Strategy says: “Our publicly available Information Asset Register is published on the Home Office website, and accessible via data.gov.uk. Information assets are reviewed by the relevant Information Asset Owners, in collaboration with others, to assess opportunities to provide re-usable data to support transparency, whilst considering the operational risk of doing so.”
The Home Office’s IAR is rather short on detail, and some entries are for either database systems or collections of data sets rather than specific information assets. However it’s good enough to provide a starting point for investigation.
Result: the Home Office maintains an IAR and publishes it.
Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC)
DECC’s Open Data Strategy says it has “compiled an information asset register to identify datasets across the Department” as part of its Knowledge and Information Strategy.
The only mention of an IAR on the DECC website is what must be a very out of date reference to Inforoute, as “the new gateway to information held by all UK Government departments”.
Result: If we take the DECC at its word it has an IAR of some sort, although unpublished.
It’s worth noting that the Coal Authority, an agency of the DECC, maintains its own Information Asset Register. This is available for download from the DECC website. It was last updated in 2010.
Foreign and Commonweath Office (FCO)
FCO’s Open Data Strategy states: “The FCO aims to complete the process of developing a corporate Information Asset Register (IAR) by the end of March 2013. The IAR will act as an information risk management tool, and will cover both paper and electronic assets and will give details of, for example, where the assets are held, what they contain, who owns them and who has access to them.”
Result: FCO doesn’t have an IAR but is compiling one. Its unclear whether it intends to publish it.
HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC)
HMRC’s Open Data Strategy states:
“As part of our ongoing commitment to transparency we will continue to analyse and understand the extent of the information assets we hold, through developing information models, asset registers, data dictionaries and repositories in order to guide and, where necessary, impose information management.
“In May 2011 we were one of the first Departments across Whitehall to publish an initial inventory of their datasets. This project allowed us to start investigating the life cycle of our data and take stock of our information, analysing ownership, security marking/disclosure and assessing publication opportunities/risks.”
This is a reference to the data catalogue released with HMRC’s Transparency Implementation Plan. This is available as an Excel workbook on its website, and is reasonably equivalent to an IAR.
Result: HMRC has an IAR and has published it.
Ministry of Defence (MOD)
MOD’s Open Data Strategy makes no mention of an IAR. However its website indicates it has maintained an IAR since 2002, updated most recently in June 2012. Format is given as “website”, but the only link provided is to the defunct Inforoute website.
Result: MOD has an IAR and is maintaining it. It may think it has published it, but in practice it’s not readily available. MOD would probably provide a copy on request though.
Ministry of Justice (MOJ)
There’s nothing in MOJ’s Open Data Strategy or on its website to confirm it maintains an IAR.
Prisons and some other bodies reporting to MOJ, such as the AJTC, do clearly maintain IARs. It would be odd if the MOJ itself did not maintain an IAR or something similar, particularly given its responsibility for National Archives (which provides guidance on information policy). IAR records for MOJ were available via Inforoute under the previous Government.
Result: No evidence found of a current IAR, and certainly not a published IAR.
Treasury’s Open Data Strategy says that “… the Treasury Group has followed the mandatory requirement by identifying a series of information assets and assigning responsibility of these information assets to individual owners within the department. These assets are reviewed on an annual basis together with an information asset register and all these are made available to the business with training material for the information asset owners via a dedicated intranet site.”
No mention on website.
Result: HM Treasury maintains an IAR but does not publish it externally.
Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS)
A message on the BIS website currently states: “The BIS Information Asset Register is being compiled and will be published in due course.”
No mention in BIS’s Open Data Strategy.
Result: BIS doesn’t have an IAR, but is preparing one and intends to publish it.
Department for Education (DfE)
DfE’s Open Data Strategy says it is putting in place a “new Information Asset Owner support system which will include online storage and management of Information Asset Registers”.
No mention of IARs on the DfE’s website.
Result: Very unclear. DfE may or may not currently maintain one or more IARs internally, but there’s nothing published.
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra)
There is quite a good IAR, last updated in October 2009, on the archived version of the Defra website. However there is nothing on the live site.
Defra’s Open Data Strategy does not mention an IAR. It does highlight the Environment Agency’s Information for Re-use Register. That document is not the same as an IAR, but it is a useful catalogue of data products available for re-use from the EA.
Ironically, although the EA’s Re-use Register itself is regularly updated, the same webpage continues to state that the OPSI is “coordinating the compilation of a Government-wide Information Asset Register”. Similarly the Rural Payments Agency section of Defra’s website directs IAR inquiries to the defunct Inforoute search interface.
Result: Defra doesn’t maintain a current IAR.
Department for Transport (DfT)
DfT maintains an IAR, updates it annually, and publishes it on Data.gov.uk. It’s clear and comprehensive. DfT’s Open Data Strategy explains the role of its IAR in supporting the Government’s Information Principles.
Result: Excellent. All departments should be copying DfT’s approach to public sector information.
Department for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport (DCMS)
DCMS’s Open Data Strategy mentions in passing that information assets are catalogued as part of its information security procedures. DCMS’s IAR is also discussed in an April 2012 Information Management Assessment from National Archives. However the IAR is not available on DCMS’s website.
Result: DCMS maintains an IAR but does not publish it.
Neither the Cabinet Office’s Open Data Strategy nor its live website mentions an IAR. An archived version of the website indicates that in 2008 the Cabinet Office had an IAR with 48 entries.
In its Open Data Strategy the Cabinet Office states that it publishes its data “in line with the Public Data Principles set out by the Transparency Board, including registering it on www.data.gov.uk.” It’s plausible that, as the department responsible for Data.gov.uk, the records on that site are a more complete representation of the Cabinet Office’s information assets than they would be for another department.
Result: No evidence that the Cabinet Office maintains an IAR.
Department of Health (DH)
DH publishes an Information Asset Register on its website. Although the homepage mentions the defunct Inforoute database, there is evidence that the IAR on the DH site itself is being actively maintained as some records have been updated in 2012.
DH’s IAR is not mentioned in its Open Data Strategy.
Result: DH maintains and publishes an IAR.
Summary and Conclusions
Of the 17 Government departments considered above, there is evidence that nine currently maintain Information Asset Registers. It’s possible some others maintain IARs on the quiet as part of their information security procedures. But only four actively publish them.
Some of those departments have more significant information assets than others. However three of the five key delivery departments mentioned in the Prime Minister’s transparency letter of July 2011 (Health, Education, Justice, Work and Pensions, Transport) do not publish an IAR.
The Cabinet Office and the MOJ, the two departments with particular responsibility for the broader public information agenda, do not publish IARs.
Six departments continue to link to Inforoute on their websites, although that service has been out of operation since well before the change of Government in 2010.
Not very good is it?
In practice the above suggests a couple of points.
If the Cabinet Office is serious about compiling a proper national inventory of public data it will probably take quite a lot of work to fill in the gaps. At the moment there is no way of establishing the full extent of public data assets. That means we have no idea what proportion of total data assets is currently registered on Data.gov.uk.
And those of us interested in opening up more types of public data will have to continue to rely on ad hoc investigation to discover new information assets. Proactive disclosure by Government has some considerable way to go.