My colleague David Sprott has just posted a critique (Big Brother Database Dinosaur) of the latest UK Government proposals [Note 1] for putting citizen data into a large central database.
As many commentators have pointed out [Note 2], a large central database of this kind would have to be built to extremely high standards of data quality and data protection. Given the recent history of public sector IT, it is hard to be confident that such standards would be achieved or maintained. There is also the question of liability and possible compensation - for example if a citizen suffered financial or other loss as a result of incorrect data.
But in any case, as David points out from an SOA perspective, the proposal is architecturally unsound and technologically obsolescent. Robin Wilton (Sun Microsystems) comes to a similar conclusion from the perspective of federated identity.
Government ministers are busily backtracking on the "Big Brother" elements of the proposal [Note 3], but the policy paper confirms some of the details [Note 4].
David's comments refer mainly to the proposed consolidation of citizen information across various public sector agencies within the UK. But there is another information-sharing problem in the news at present - the fact that the UK criminal records database does not include tens of thousands of crimes committed by UK citizens in other countries. [Note 5]
Part of the difficulty seems to be in verifying the identity of these records. Information sharing requires some level of interoperability, and this includes minimum standards of identification. There are some serious issues here, including semantics, which can never be resolved merely by collecting large amounts of data into one place.
The problem of information sharing within one country is really no different from the problems of information sharing between countries. But at least in the latter case there is nobody saying we can solve all the problems by building a single international database. At least I hope not.
As I said on this blog in 2003 [Note 6], we need to innovate new mechanisms to manage information sharing. This is one of the opportunities and challenges for SOA in delivering joined-up services in a proper manner. Then centralization becomes irrelevant.
Note 1: BBC News January 14th 2007
Note 2: Fish & Chip Papers: Government uber-databases,
Note 3: BBC News January 15th 2007. See also Fish & Chip Papers: Data sharing does not a Big Brother make.
Note 4: Daily Telegraph Microchips for mentally ill planned in shake-up.
Note 5: According to ACPO, some 27,500 case files were left in desk files at the Home Office instead of being properly examined and entered into the criminal records database. [BBC News]
Note 6: See my post from 2003 on Information Sharing and Joined-Up Services.