Think the Legal Services Ombudsman is going too far by publishing figures of complaints against named law firms? Think again. What if the information was linked to data showing each firm’s geographical location together with that of named solicitors subjected to Solicitors Regulation Authority sanctions?
In the web world, that’s what’s known as a ‘mash-up’ - you take unrelated data from two or more sources, and see what unexpected clusters turn up. For a simple example, see the excellent free website www.commutefrom.com, which maps London property prices against commuting times.
The idea isn’t new - the Victorian physician John Snow was doing something similar when he mapped cholera deaths in Soho against the distance from a water pump in Broad Street. But web technology makes mash-up sites easy to build and pretty well self-running thereafter. Before creating his cholera map, Snow needed a good idea that he was on to something. The modern masher can do it on a whim, just to see what happens.
Now, I have no idea what might emerge from mashing up the ombudsman’s complaints data, let alone how someone might make a business out of it. But, sooner or later it will be tried. Knowing this perfectly well, the ombudsman is trying to fend off interest by making the data available in a form that makes it inconvenient to reuse. Data geeks will notice that the complaints tables are available only formatted for the web or laid out as a PDF document rather than in a format that can be easily read by computers (the approved one is called CSV, for comma-separated values).
When we asked why, the ombudsman’s office replied that its policy team wants ‘to minimise the potential for it being misused and viewed out of context - and so we've applied a blanket response to any requests for CSV formatting’.
This is feeble stonewalling. For a start, it goes against the current government’s policy as a matter of principle to make all public data available in a machine-readable format. Even the Ministry of Justice has been forced to go along, under an open data strategy published earlier this year. More to the point, formatting isn’t an insuperable barrier - there’s nothing to stop a determined masher simply retyping the data into a CSV list.
The ombudsman’s office seems to recognise this inevitability. Its statement goes on to say: ‘we know there are legitimate reasons why a third party might want access to the data so we're considering our approach for future requests’. So, why not just save a lot of fuss and money and do it now?
And, in the meantime, let’s have some ideas for possible mash-ups. With house prices, perhaps, or neighbourhood crime statistics? The data is all there on the web. We’ve paid for it, so may as well use it.
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor
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