Information wants to be siloed

Data, they say, is the new oil, and open public data is the new commons. Give the people the facts, and they will use them to make informed decisions. Right? Except that’s not the bureaucratic instinct. Bureaucrats fear the free flow of information. And all too often they’ll try to quench it by intoning the magic word “security,” and if that doesn’t work, “terrorism!“, in the most idiotic ways and places possible.

This is a wide and general rule: whenever some tinpot official says something painfully dumb has to be done Because Security, the odds are better than even that they’re lazy, lying, and/or incompetent. (Think of this every time e.g. your work password expires and you’re required to change it.) There are so many specific examples that it’s hard to choose just one — but, conveniently, recently an old friend of mine stumbled across an example of this so vivid and unforgettable that I can’t not write about it.

The situation is explored in depth here, but to summarize: Gavin Chait, an independent development economist, asked local authorities in the UK to provide data on business properties registered in those areas, including whether those properties were vacant or not. A fifth of them were already publishing that information to their open-data websites; easy enough.

The value of that information should be obvious: determining economic trends over time, and making predictions; tracking the retailpocalypse, if and when it occurs; measuring the lifespan of businesses; more precisely estimating values and the timing of business real-estate development and investment; etcetera. Quite dry, if you ask me, but the kind(s) of thing which economists love.

So, naturally, Westminster City Council basically responded by claiming that this kind of open data would breed terrorism. No, wait, it gets worse! The forms of malicious activities which they claim would be encouraged by the open publication of registered business property data include, as mentioned, terrorism, but also identity fraud, money laundering, drug consumption, crack houses, and … wait for it … the horror! the horror! … “meeting places for young people, and rave parties.”

Obviously the vast pool of nefarious young people, terrorists, crack house builders, and ravers who are apparently poised to invade, once this Maginot Line of obscurity is breached, would never be able to find any vacant properties without the publication of this data. Truly, Westminster City Council is holding back a veritable tsunami of terror, identity theft, and drug abuse by keeping this toxically dangerous data away from our collective prying eyes.

It’s absurd, it’s painfully stupid, and I hope that Gavin’s forthcoming appeal overturns this risible idiocy. But it also an example of two worrying trends: locking up data which should be open, and the notion that the claim “it’s for security reasons,” no matter how ludicrous those reasons may be, is an unchallengeable magic spell which trumps any other consideration.

Public data should be a commons, not a treasure hoarded behind lock and key. But data can be the new oil. I suspect that’s one big reason why bureaucrats instinctively want to keep it to themselves. (Before you quote “information wants to be free” at me, please keep in mind that that’s only half of what Stewart Brand said.)

“It’s for security,” though — that’s what really enrages me. No one should ever get to shut down conversation with the magic word “security.” Indeed, the opposite should be true: that claim should require far more supporting evidence than any other justification. Let’s hope we get to live in that world some day.