Unlocking opportunities for growth and solving global challenges with open data
Tue 11 Nov 2014
Richard Stirling, International Director at the Open Data Institute (ODI), explains the importance of the emerging open data movement for increasing transparency, unlocking economic growth for businesses, and solving local and global issues.
Firstly, could you explain a bit about the current trends in data and analytics?
There are three big data trends happening at the moment. The first is around personal data with questions around personal privacy, and whether people should own their own data or if it should be the people who provide the services to them. Another trend is around big data and the large volumes of data that can now be crunched to provide analytics. Finally, there’s the open data movement – data that is free for people to use and republish – which the ODI helps to nurture and promote.
How can open data and open source tools work as vehicles to boost innovation and economic growth for businesses?
Open data has been described as the oil for the digital age. It’s a resource that’s freely available for people to work with. It’s like a raw material that doesn’t cost you anything. Open source tools are a great way of refining that raw material and starting to turn it into insight. The open source tool which is being showcased a lot at the moment is Hadoop, which is a great tool for taking large volumes of data and turning it into insights that can then be applied and used to generate business efficiency and identify new targets for innovation. The overall message, both from open data and open source, is a reduction in costs and an ability to take risks that you otherwise wouldn’t have taken, which then again drives innovation.
Open data is still considered as a fairly nascent phenomenon, what do you feel should be the next steps for raising awareness globally?
Open data brings huge potential. In the UK, we have seen companies and organisations taking open data, published either by other companies or by government, and using it to solve problems and find new innovative solutions to problems which have existed for a while. We have seen everything from an open data project identifying a £200mn cash saving in the NHS drugs budget, through to a company acting as a broker in the energy market using open data to address changes in market dynamics.
Therefore, I think the next step for the global open data movement is finding and generating more of these examples and fostering start-up companies into the open data ecosystem. We need to take advantage of the open data that’s now being released by an increasing number of governments globally to solve problems and create new businesses.
How can governments act as catalysts for the open data movement?
Government is an essential actor in the open data movement. Data can be such a large part of the economy, and is such an important part of any country. Governments have a huge amount of data which they both hold and create, and is largely paid for by tax payers. That data can be opened up and made available for other people and businesses to reuse, subject to any personal privacy or security constraints.
Governments also act as enormous potential customers. The benefits of open data don’t just come from transparency, they come from efficiency and from new products and processes, and governments themselves are great new customers.
It has been suggested that despite its good intentions open data can be hampered by issues with or ‘dirty data’, or poor format and quality. How can these challenges be avoided?
These are challenges faced when working with any type of data, not just open data alone. The way to avoid them is to think how the data is going to be used beforehand and feed that into the work you do around format and publication. This is an area that the ODI has done quite a lot of work on, creating open data certificates which are almost like service level agreements for the publication of data. They deal with format and quality but also move beyond technical data formatting into things like certainty of supply.
If you think of open data as a raw material, you need to ask questions such as: How frequently can I get to the data? What is the quality like? Will it be the same quality every time? How long can I rely on the supply? These sorts of questions are all answered in our open data certificates. For someone coming and looking at open data, they can see at a glance what type of data it is, as well as some of the more intangible things linked to data quality. These are things that are really important when you’re looking to build your business. You can build a business on open data that’s been supplied and then disappears 12 months down the line – all of a sudden you don’t have a business anymore.
Research has suggested that participation with open data remains limited, what do you think is causing the lack of enthusiasm and how do you plan on addressing this issue?
I wouldn’t say it is a lack of enthusiasm I would say that the audience for the data itself is always going to be limited to an extent. It is always going to be the people who can work with the data, such as developers. Looking at the accountability aspect, interested parties will be the developers who work in the civil society space. Otherwise, users could also be developers working with businesses who have a clear business reason for engaging with the data. We can now see open data incorporated in a number of mainstream analytical packages and services that people recognise. I think the way that more people will engage with open data is through it being used as part of a solution and they probably won’t even know it’s there – and that’s not necessarily a failure.
Do you have a favourite example of an open data project?
My favourite example is probably the one I referred to earlier, the £200mn cash saving for the NHS. The NHS information centre had been publishing open data around prescriptions for over a year – prescriptions data for every patient in England and Wales, for every prescription and for every drug line, suitably anonymised. A huge amount of information was flowing through the system and being released as open data, but there were no public examples of it being used. We had a few private anecdotes suggesting some drug companies were using it to check that their drug reps weren’t lying to them, but nothing that we could point to and say this is a really useful thing.
Then at a hack day which we hosted, one of our start-up companies teamed up with Open Health Care to analyse the prescriptions data. They did a little bit of work on it over the event and came to us at the end to say there’s something in this. We gave them a little bit of money to go away and do the research, funding the prototype stage. In eight weeks they crunched through the data and identified this £200mn cash saving for the NHS, realised through switching from branded drugs to generic drugs. Now that to me highlights the power of open data, and indeed simply using data analytics smartly within a business.