Opening up to a fast-changing future

By Jeni Tennison, chief executive of the Open Data Institute

Data underpins the products and services we use every day. It is one of the most valuable resources a business has and, like a road, its value is increased by the number of things to which it is connected.

The data powering these services is made available through a spectrum of access levels, from closed to shared to open. Open data is data anyone can access, use and share – it may not be apparent, but it underpins many apps we take for granted, such as Citymapper and Zoopla. Open data helps commuters pick travel options, parents choose schools, businesses select locations for their stores, and farmers work out which crop to plant and when.

We expect the government to open its data to enable us, the public, to hold it to account; to support more efficient public services; and to drive commercial innovation. But the case for businesses to open up their data is not usually driven by public good. While government provides infrastructure for society, this isn’t the case for private-sector organisations that serve their customers and their shareholders. The thought of being open can run counter to the culture of some of our established businesses.

But there are big benefits. Adopting an open approach towards data and business practices more widely offers commercial agility, pace and scale, and reduces costs. By opening and reusing data, skills, systems and resources with collaborators, and embracing open solutions that arise outside the organisation, businesses can respond to new opportunities quicker than ever before. This can also be a catalyst for a wider change within an organisation’s culture driving willingness to collaborate and find solutions within a larger network. These are known as porous organisations.

Last year the Open Data Institute (ODI) published research into how large businesses make use of open data, from agricultural research to urban planning and design. It found that data, along with new technologies and ideas, is made more valuable if it is openly exchanged between organisations.

Adopting an open approach towards data and business practices more widely offers commercial agility, pace and scale, and reduces costs

For example, Thomson Reuters has developed a product called PermID. It started as a solution to an internal data management challenge to connect data assets from around the organisation. But now the identifiers for that data are published under an open licence, any business can build their systems on Thomson Reuters’ data, with less cost and less risk.

So, can businesses actually make money from adopting open approaches? The answer, backed up by an array of evidence, is yes. Built on open data published by Transport for London, the Citymapper app helps users navigate a growing number of international cities. It may be competing with more established players, but a funding round this year valued the company at around £250 million.

Research from Lateral Economics showed that open data from the public sector creates 0.5 per cent more GDP compared with paid data. And last year a report by PwC revealed that the Open Data Challenge Series – a partnership between the ODI and Nesta – could see a ten-fold return on investment to the UK economy. Indeed the ODI recently revealed that alongside its network of startups, franchises and partners, it has unlocked £50 million of value to the economy since it opened in December 2012. Proof if proof were needed that forward-looking businesses can reap rewards through being open.