Two really important things happened last week, contrasting moments of genuinely historic importance. The first, unmissably dramatic, drew immediate strong reactions from many millions, here and abroad; the second was almost entirely unnoticed, back-stage. Both were of shattering political impact, but in different ways and measured on very different scales.
The first, of course, was Britain’s veto of the EU treaty proposal. I say ‘Britain’s veto’ and not ‘Cameron’s veto’ because I see it as a genuinely collaborative, national decision in the terms I described here, where I argued that leaders are really followers, always just navigating the difficult flows of public and peer opinion. Even at the summit, Cameron, Merkel and Sarkozy were clearly being driven by their home crowds. We can be glad that it was Cameron up there on the bridge: the biggest influence on him is always alignment with the public opinion, not that other great influence, elite opinion (I have previously referred to Tetlock, whose detailed study showed that ‘expert political opinion’ is more often wrong than right).
Cameron and the Conservatives are now in a stronger, but more brittle position. Stronger, because they are visibly and decisively on the side of overwhelming public opinion. But also more brittle, because the opposing forces in the coalition are now more acute. Clegg faces the clamour of his party. Eurosceptics meanwhile are bound to push for more and swifter moves away from Brussels. Cameron will be trying to hold it together in the face of increasingly strident and divergent internal pressures. My model of how opinion develops predicts in this case a growing divide rather than consensus. The outcome this way or that could make a huge difference for Britain’s prosperity.
What a contrast there is between that hugely public moment and the other momentous event of last week.
I will first have to build up the introduction to that event lest sceptical readers laugh out loud – although those who consider freedom of data a trivial and boring thing may as well stop reading here.
The growth of prosperity, the growth of democracy, the ascent of man – this is all driven by the broadening availability of information. These are the biggest trends of human history, with obvious staging posts: the development of language, of writing, of printing; the telegraph, television, the Internet. The more freely people can communicate, the more they can produce out of their shared knowledge. It’s all about learning from each other, pooling our experience and our intelligence. Now evolution is accelerating from biological to digital.
The government is the biggest single owner of information. The more it can make it free and transparent, the better for the nation. And yet all the tendencies of the government machine, the bureaucracy, are tilted to limiting free availability. That institutional bias is all the more powerful because it is more likely to be unconscious than the exercise of deliberate bad faith.
The Conservatives entered government with a clear, radical commitment to freedom of data, and they have been steadily delivering on it. Last week saw a new instalment of that programme, the most significant yet, and it will have massive practical beneficial effects that will speed up the course of human development. Yes, I realise, many readers of this blog who are understandably smitten by the political show, the centre-stage excitement, will find me absurd in my enthusiasm for what Steve Hilton and Rohan Silva have achieved. Fighting the institutional bias against open information is something of a heroic act. Turning it into something of practical benefit is a major feat of implementation.
The data releases Hilton and Silva have driven in the past 18 months have principally been designed to improve government accountability and/ or direct commercial applications. But last week's data announcements were different: they will facilitate new academic and scientific research, and also secure investment (government and corporate) for two new research institutions that will carry out cutting edge research on large scale datasets. The result will undoubtedly be the more rapid advance of science, and the benefits will be huge.
The first announcement was on open access to academic research. Until now, research that has been paid for by the taxpayer has been ‘monetised’ by commercial publishers, so that universities alone have to spend £250m a year simply to access their own work. In the future, all taxpayer-funded academic research will be openly available, free of charge, to anyone anywhere in the world. This is a huge step forward for the open exchange of ideas. I also have to applaud the dedicated lobbying of my friend Lisbet Rausing, a leading philanthropist and Senior Research Fellow at Imperial College’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine.
The second announcement was about freeing the scientific value of patient data. Significant medical advances will undoubtedly flow from unlocking the massive NHS data bank of patient experiences. By changing the ‘default setting’ so that patients are automatically opted into sharing anonymised data with researchers (they can always opt out) there will be an exponential increase in the amount of material available to researchers. This comes on top of the other health datasets that are being released, such as on GP prescriptions, and data that allows researchers to link primary and secondary care outcomes. This will provide researchers with ‘real world evidence’ – allowing the analysis of the impact of drugs and treatments in real populations of patients over time. The UK will be the first country in the world to release this data, making us genuinely the best place in the world to carry out medical research (which happens to be one of the areas of strength for the UK economy).
On top of that, they secured £30m of government funding for a Tim Berners-Lee Open Data Institute in Shoreditch, and helped raise corporate funding for the UCL-Imperial Future Cities Institute. The latter institute will focus on building new applications on the back of the huge amounts of data that cities are now pumping out – for example from smart meters, GPS devices, mobile phone networks and so on.
OK, making new data-sets available and useful is never going to make headlines. But it is genuinely transforming, as we shift from governments holding on tightly to the wealth of information we have given them to releasing it back to us. Anything that helps unlock human potential is to be sung from the rooftops. Freedom of data, freedom from bad treaties: two very big moments in contemporary history.