Feature Story

Capturing the Power of Open Data

by Melissa Jun Rowley

A look at the advantages of using open data in solving challenges in society and business.

The positives that come with enhancing citizen access to government and environmental data are limitless. Not only does open data, or information that is freely available for everyone to use, activate public transparency and enable deeper citizen engagement, it potentially creates the means for a more community-driven society. The question is, how are organizations and individuals using this data to have the greatest impact?

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Just as big data analytics are only valuable when they're used to fix a specific problem, open data serves communities best when its analyzed and then humanized through storytelling.

The Open Data Institute (ODI) in London works with digital and social impact experts to promote open data innovation and incubate, mentor and coach startups developing open data solutions. As part of its initiative to cultivate the effective use of data, the institute offers a course for journalists on finding stories in open data. When you're crystal clear about the problem you're looking to solve, the stories that unfold through exploring datasets and creating summary statistics are significantly more visible. And stories are the driving force of social change.


By opening up their data, the potential can be unlocked - Liz Carolan


Take for example the ODI startup Spend Network, which analyzes data to uncover government spending trends. This company revealed that the UK inefficiently spent £22 billion, which was originally intended to go to businesses and fuel the economy.

The repercussions of government actions or lack thereof are just one side of what open data can disclose. Open data can also be used to predict the future.

Through a partnership with Telefónica Dynamic Insights, ODI developed tools to estimate the potential impact of planned fire station closures in London. Maps that show the possible effects of fire station closures are generated using two datasets, based on fire service attendance time to incidents and mobile phone activity in different locations.

It's free and readily available. What are other advantages of open data?

Liz Carolan, International Development Manager at the ODI, says a challenge for many organizations can be the time and resources needed to crunh large data sets.

"By opening up their data, the potential can be unlocked," says Carolan.  "Take Medicare in the US, for instance, which has a huge range of data at its disposal. By making its data open, Medicare enabled anyone to access and analyse it. In 2012, the New York Times undertook some analysis and identified a number of anomalies within the data including what could appear to be abnormally high Medicare claims. This analysis enabled not only the public to be made aware of the potential existence of such instances, but also for that data to be fed back into Medicare's system so it can identify and explore such anomalies."

How can open data be used for businesses?

According to a McKinsey report, seven sectors could generate $3 million thanks for open data. However, making open data an actual business itself is proving to be tricky. Yodit Stanton,  founder and CEO of the ODI incubated startup Opensenors.io, which processes Internet of Things data, says the biggest issue with open data is that the industry hasn't figured out how to build a working business model.

"It's [open data's] not like social networks, where you can make money with advertising," says Stanton. "While big data is good for advertising companies, data from the Internet of Things would be good for insurance companies, but then you need to think through what the implications are."

The Opensensors.io platform allows users to create open data projects for free through information collected from sensors.

"People connect to us and publish sensor information, so anyone can create open data projects," shares Stanton. "We want to encourage people to have access to things."

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Over 500 people currently use Opensensors.io. One of the projects the company is deploying involves a series of parking sensors in 12 cities in the UK. Stanton says that for this kind the automated parking service to mature, the data needs to be available. That way a city manger can access it; a smartphone can plug into it.

The perspective of the ODI is that in order to make a business case for open data, organizations need to understand the potential of the data they possess, examine the data flow arrangements they have with other groups, and determine which ones can be most affected through receiving more or better quality data. No matter how free and open any data is, its value could be priceless for some.


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