Tuesday, 16 June 2009

"better meta data now" in Digital Britain

Think we might be seeing some joined up thinking in government? Consider the OEP, the still unpublished Trading Fund Review, the OS Revised Strategy, the appointment of web-founder and Linked Data evangelist Sir Tim (as well as Martha LF in another parallel advisory capacity) and the Digital Britain report - consistent references are made (and this is my shorthand interpretation admittedly) to the value of digital content, both in its creation and its distribution and consumption, to UK plc.

As the economic profile of the creative industries rises and advertising revenues and the financial services sector suffer, there is creeping recognition that just because you can (copy and distribute digital content for next to nothing) don't make it right. File sharing and DRM are inevitably at the forefront of this debate for the consumer but, in business, enterprises value their integrity to the point of making such copying or use a dismissable offence (I've seen the noticeboards, believe me, compliance is a competitive advantage).

This has a serious edge because the search engines and ISPs are using tools and technologies that harness both private and corporate information, with and sometimes without your direct consent, combining it with third party data to aid, amongst other things, their advertising services where narrowly targeted highly granular adverts are of highest value. This is creating an opportunity for advert-less solutions based on open source tools. Often start-ups, bedroom coders and the third sector (that includes some so-called not for profits alongside genuine charities) are the key innovators in this area in the search for maximum bang for buck.

Which leads us to public sector information holders, seeing as they collect (sometimes in much the same way as search engines) reams of data about people, places and business that may (or may not) have utility and value to citizens, consumers, corporations and charities. Local authorities, government departments, trading funds, executive agencies, regional assemblies and their agencies, PCTs and SHAs and more, there are 1000s of possible sources of PSI. And for most we know little about what they collect, can discover less about what they publish and can't thus value or use.

Those that we do know about have attracted a great deal of attention over the last 3 years and following the OEP we now have a slightly less muddy idea of where they might be heading - down the principle of the user should pay (and Digital Britain has followed this what is in effect a a £6 levy on fixed lines to bring broadband to as many as people as possible over the next decade). These developments are not to everyone's liking and the devil as ever will be in the detail; the reality is that as the Digital Britain report acknowledges but which so many others have overlooked, developments in technology have already, and will continue to, lead to falling unit costs for access to, and for content carried over, digital communications networks.

Taking one area as perhaps the most visible and contentious example, technology investment has resulted in a near 40% fall in real terms of the price of the most detailed digital mapping product in the world, called OS MasterMap, over the last 8 years. Further investments will likely see this real terms unit price fall further, in part to demur to (very vocal) critics, in part as government negotiates a better deal for access to such data, in part due to new competition (re UKMap). It is entirely conceivable that the creator of this data (the much pilloried but changing Ordnance Survey) could find themselves in a position where they could "give" data to their colleagues across government and charge everyone else and still make a return on capital employed, eliminating the charge of "subsidy" and providing the much needed consistent location database on which UK plc can build (and charge for and pay taxes for) its services.

Already, users from consumers paying £15 or so for a map based planning application for a £40,000 extension to consulting engineers paying £000s for multi-million pound developments see both the necessity of such location information and the incidental nature of the cost of it to the activity in question. The acknowledged thorny issue of 'derived data' is set aside for now!

The current government's message seems to understand this and to promote the idea that digital data and content does have value, that those that collect it should be compensated and that those that use should pay for it. New business models are the order of the day - consider the "all you can eat" subscription deal from Virgin announced today.

The latter (alongside recent changes in PRS terms for example) aims to ensure that amongst other things way we can be sure that our creative industries are nourished and sustained while the former aims to ensure that digital content backbone upon which UK plc depends is itself guaranteed.

The missing part of the jigsaw as I have commented on other blogs stems not from an appreciation that standards should be used or that data shouldn't be available but rather what that accessibility might mean to its creators and consumers alike. Political parties of all persuasions are attracted by the term "with rights come responsibilities" (or similar) and the same applies to digital content. Recognition and in some instances reward are expected.

But, and here's the rub, unless and until digital content creators either choose (commercially) or are mandated (by executive order) to publish information about what they collect and can distribute and on what terms then we are all, as consumers, blind. Metadata, data about data including the rights and responsibilities associated with its use, is central to the thesis that we are an information economy and it is sorely lacking (as any screen scraping hacker will affirm) from all these reports and from most commentaries on the subject - please no more mention of central repositories, it ain't necessary and will cost a fortune.

So, "better meta data now" has a handy alliterative quality to it and I commend this phrase as an enabler for a digital britain.....as Ben Bradshaw didn't, sadly, say!

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