UK: Open Data: What Do Businesses Really Need?

Last Updated: 27 October 2014
Article by Harvey Lewis

When it comes to open data, few would disagree that the UK is in a world-leading position. Tens of thousands of data sets – free for anyone to use – have been published by central government and local authorities since 2008; the Open Data Institute, launched just two years ago, is incubating a new generation of innovative start-ups whose business models are predicated on the use of open data; the volunteers of the Open Data User Group have championed requests from the wider user community for hundreds more data sets; and, more widely, there is now growing awareness among both businesses and public sector bodies alike that open data and the skills needed to collect and analyse it are fundamental to the growth of this country's new, more digital economy.

However, despite these successes, open data does not yet evoke quite the same level of interest among businesses and investors as 'big data', for example. Nor do we have a clear understanding of which data sets really matter to our economy or to our social progress – although I remain optimistic that the efforts behind establishing a National Information Infrastructure will help to achieve this. The problem is that we are, in many ways, still stuck in a rut: we talk in quite abstract and technical language about data and the mechanics of making it open rather than engaging in a dialogue about the challenges and opportunities facing businesses and the public sector.

If you think that may be too harsh then consider that open data, after all, is simply the means, not the ends. It describes just one input into a process that these days requires a clear understanding of the business objectives, or 'crunchy questions' that need to be answered, the right mix of data and technology to derive analytical insight, and, finally, execution of the appropriate decisions that lead to a successful outcome. This process isn't just for big businesses or big government, nor does it exclusively describe the commercial approaches taken by open data start-ups. All organisations are equal in the eyes of open data – new, small, medium-sized, big and multi-national businesses, as well as every organisational facet of the public sector.

So how do we build on our current successes to ensure that open data hits the mainstream? What needs to change? I have three items on my open data wishlist:

  1. Let's get around the table. Forget the bureaucracy and the mechanics for a moment – while I acknowledge that they are absolutely necessary, they are insufficient by themselves to trigger change. What's needed is a transition in dialogue between the users and publishers of open data towards a better understanding of the needs, objectives and desired outcomes of business and public sector users. Let's build partnerships around shared aims and needs. Only then can we focus on the data that really matters.
  2. Let's get the fundamentals right: one open data licence for all open data published by the public sector, and let's strive to achieve a minimum three-star standard when it comes to formats (a non-proprietary format, such as Comma-Separated Variables, is often much easier to use than the default proprietary format). Data doesn't have to be pretty.
  3. Let's think about the adjacent possible: for example, the new national curriculum requires primary school children to be taught the basics of algorithms and computer programming. What better resource for helping to teach the fundamentals of data science than simple, usable sets of open data?

There has been a lot of talk of the open data 'ecosystem' in recent months. Real-world ecosystems operate on the basis of long-established and symbiotic relationships between actors at every level, where the needs of one are served by the outputs of another. To make the open data ecosystem a success, we need the equivalent relationships, inputs and outputs at every level of the value chain.

Do you agree? What would your open data wish-list contain?

[This post originally appeared on techUK.]

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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