Opening up public and business data

Professor Nigel Shadbolt, government adviser and co-leader of the forthcoming Open Data Institute, explores the potential of open government data, and increased public and corporate transparency

We are living in an age of superabundant data that has been variously described as the oxygen of the 21st century economy or the new oil. But like any raw material, it benefits from refining. Data without meaning is itself meaningless. It is only as we understand the context of what data means that it becomes information and ultimately information that we can action becomes useful knowledge.

Data also comes in all sorts of shapes, sizes and forms. From big data to modest spreadsheets, public non-personal data to data that is private to an individual, data that is structured to data that is at best semi-structured – all have their own value.

One strain of data that is generating a lot of interest at the moment is open government data. Increasing numbers of governments, regions and cities are publishing their non-personal public data. Beginning with the United States launching data.gov – primarily driven by President Obama’s commitment to fiscal transparency – the intent was to track where stimulus money was being spent.

More and more datasets started to appear on data.gov, and the UK followed suit soon after. By some ratings the UK now has the most valuable datasets of any nation on its data.gov.uk site.

Businesses should take a long, hard look at what data assets might serve them better if published as open data in the public domain

The arguments in favour of open government data include not just transparency but improved public-sector efficiency. For example, in the two years since MRSA infection rates in UK hospitals were published, reductions of around 80 per cent have been reported, in part because openly published data allowed best practice to be shared and hospitals performing poorly sought to do better.

Some of the first examples of use of open government data were from community groups and single-issue groups. The data on bicycle accidents held by the Department of Transport was turned into applications to help cyclists avoid cycling black sports. Data turned into actionable information in days.

We are also seeing open government data used by businesses to provide new services and economic value, and generate innovation. Companies, such as Agresso, UNIT4 and Spikes Cavell, use the spending data published openly each month by local authorities to analyse spending and procurement.

Some businesses are themselves embracing open data principles. Companies, such as Italian power company Enel and sports outfitter Nike, publish corporate data in part to fulfil transparency and accountability commitments. ASOS the online fashion giant opened up its product and basket services data, looking to attract external web developers in a bid to extend its online presence. Businesses should take a long, hard look at what data assets might serve them better if published as open data in the public domain.

The dream of open government data is to turn public non-personal data into something much more useful by publishing it openly using open licences and open standards. From bus timetables to hospital infections rates, the cost of stationery for a local authority to the number of thefts in a postcode area, data releases have led to applications built by citizens and start-ups, by companies big and small.

The Open Data Institute that Sir Tim Berners-Lee and I are leading will open its doors for business in September in Shoreditch, London. One of its core objectives is to help drive innovation around the exploitation of these new and growing open data assets.