Could the Government commercialise its databank to raise funds if all competing interests were aligned? Richard Kemp muses over the potential.

As we move into the era of Big Data – vast exploitable datasets of computerised information – it’s worth noting that HMG’s database about UK citizens is the largest in the country and of enormous and increasing value.  Mr Francis Maude the Cabinet Office Minister is a keen enthusiast for open data, but should the Government be doing more to monetise its data estate?

Even leaving aside Snowden and surveillance, government departments like Health, Home Office, Education, HMRC and BIS have huge and growing digital databases.  Were it not for the seemingly endless run of high profile public sector IT fiascos in the first decade of the century, the hue and cry from civil liberties groups about the risks to individual freedoms of ‘citizen on a stick’ – everything the State knows about any citizen on a memory stick – would doubtless have been much louder by now.

As it is, as individual government departments start to master their own data estates and central government as a whole starts to join up the dots on what each department knows about any particular individual, HMG’s data estate – a term we will become much more familiar with in years to come – will become one of the UK’s most valuable national assets (perhaps comparable with its real property estate, whose book value is estimated at around £400bn).

If you look at the UK data estate as an asset, it’s not as simple as property – which has a capital value as an asset you can sell, income value from rentals and expense associated with upkeep and maintenance.  With data, what should be the right policy drivers to protection, growth, maintenance and monetisation of the asset?  And how do you reconcile all the conflicting interests – individual liberties, commercial interests, safeguards against overreaching by the State and maximising the benefits for citizens of technological progress?

Just as property law defines rights and obligations about real estate, a worthwhile start point in the policy debate about data is also its legal framework.  Data is pretty weird stuff in legal terms – as expression and communication, English law holds that you can’t steal it and, after a judgment earlier this year, you can’t have a lien (a right to retain possession) over a database either.  But as digital information becomes more valuable, legal rights in relation to data are developing fast as enforceable sources and stores of value, based on contract law, regulatory law and intellectual property (copyright, database right and confidentiality) law.

Legal rights in data provide the framework and the mechanism to mediate all the competing interests about data use. One of the most important areas of conflict is between individual rights to privacy and the commercial value of the databases concerned to service providers to the public sector, increasingly dominated by IT businesses with deep pockets.

IT companies can now develop sophisticated predictive products and services using large aggregated, anonymised public databases.  In healthcare, where NHS databases of clinical outcomes can improve preventive medicine and patient care, the combination of recent breakthroughs in cancer treatment drugs and national oncology databases is a case in point. The NHS databases are of enormous value to the commercial sector, who will in turn charge the NHS a commercial rate for the drugs, treatments, medicines and services they will develop as a result.

Mr Maude is a noted advocate of open government.  In a recent speech in Paris at the end of April he outlined five principles for public sector reform, all of which apply to HMG’s data estate: tight central control of IT, property and procurement as common activities; looser operational control; fostering an innovative culture; ‘digital by default’; and ‘being transparent and publishing open data’.

Talking about accountability and transparency, he said that ‘ultimately, public data belongs to the citizen, not the state’.  I’m not sure that’s right – the data that the State holds about me as an identifiable individual, sure; but that data as collated, structured and searchable and as the product of all those public sector IT projects? I have an interest, protected by law, that the information that relates to me is not misused.  Yet, as a taxpayer, when those vast datasets are aggregated, anonymised and packaged up, I want to make sure that HMG isn’t missing a trick in licensing them on commercial terms to the IT and healthcare providers who will use them to develop the products and services that enhance our quality of life and that they will then sell back to us on equally commercial terms.

At a time of pressure on public finances, and when everyone – citizens and business – stands to benefit from services Big Data makes possible, shouldn’t HMG be developing a comprehensive government-wide approach to commercial licensing of its data estate that balances all the competing interests?