The National Information Infrastructure – holes in the road(map)

In my work as part of the Open Data User Group I have come across a secret* document: the National Information Infrastructure.

The idea, which has come out of the Shakespeare Review, is to identify the Government datasets that need to be protected and (potentially) made open in the public interest.


Ignoring the inconvenient fact that two of the most significant datasets won’t fall within it’s remit (the Royal Mail’s Postal Address File, which was conveniently sold off with the Royal Mail; and Ordnance Survey’s MasterMap, which is never, ever going to be open) the idea seems sound.  Data is increasingly important, and Government has a role to play in supporting and protecting it.

But there are some big holes in the road.

Firstly much of the important data isn’t, and will never be, public open data. It is the data that we rely on that is held by commercial organisations.  This data is vital to the economic well being of the country. In fact, much of it is necessary just to make things work!

Just imagine what would happen to the country if there was a significant loss of data in one of the major telecommunications companies?  And bear in mind that telephony today is very much a data business. Or what about if one of our banks had its data maliciously wiped? Most money is data, not pound coins. It would make the financial meltdown look trivial (don’t believe me, then think – would you be willing to buy or sell things if you weren’t confident that the money you were using actually existed, or would continue to exist in ten minutes time?).

And it doesn’t take quite such a catastrophic event to cause problems. Fat finger incidents are already capable of causing significant problems. 

The second issue is the interlinking of physical and data assets. Yes, data is important. But, until the singularity, data sits somewhere. On servers. And it’s transferred via networks.  And these are vulnerable to attacks.  The attacks can be “friendly” (yes NSA, I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt) or malicious (the result of Heartbleed, for example), but they can happen.  And the cloud makes life more complex. Just where exactly is that data you were talking about?  Whose jurisdiction does your national asset reside in?  

And the third problem is legislative. What will the impact of legislation be on your national asset? Some will be beneficial (commitments to open data), others will be troublesome, or even damaging.  Best to think these through and highlight them upfront.

So, if we see the NII in its present form as an end point then it is a disappointing missed opportunity.  But, if we see it as the starting point for a recognition of the vital role of data in society, then it has promise… 

*Not really – the existence of the NII was made public last year.