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News How to make open data more accessible

'Data as culture' is a phrase new to many, but its roots will be familiar. We live in an age of data-driven decision-making: decisions that impact every aspect of our lives.

Whether it's the prime minister reviewing data about our economic growth, or your sister checking your FourSquare check-ins, data is ubiquitous and pervasive.

Since the early days of the internet, and the web, we have seen more data becoming available. Mobile phones, smart meters and sensors, store cards, and social media are all generating data that simply didn't exist before. This is in addition to the huge amounts of information that already exists; health records, transport routes, maps, spending information, are now all digital – but rarely accessible.

Open data does not mean 'all data', or that it's a free-for-all. For example, your personal health data is extremely private. There are benefits to access: for example aggregated anonymous statistical analysis can help us make better decisions. There are also risks – we know that companies, governments, and individuals are not always well equipped to handle information in the most appropriate ways. We also face challenges of transparency. We need to be clear on whose data we are using and how it is being used: 'provenance' or 'traceability' needs to form part of our data literacy. If a minister is making a data-driven decision about our economy, I'd certainly like to know their sources.

Simultaneously, we now face new challenges that need different kinds of innovation, collaboration, and engagement. From environmental threats such as climate change and energy security, to social equity, and economic prosperity, we now live in an age where accurate information not only guides our decisions but the ability to examine the systems impact are crucial. For example, solving one issue, such as energy security, with the wrong solution will have devastating impacts on our environment, and such impacts will in-turn have devastating impacts on our economic and social well-being. The availability of data is crucial to collaboration, the development of novel solutions to problems, and to monitoring their impacts.

We face three systems' challenges in the creation of a new ecosystem around data and information: supply, enablement, and demand.

Founded by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt, the Open Data Institute (ODI) has been created to help address these challenges.

Since assuming the role of chief executive officer in October at the ODI, I have been struck by the ubiquitous enthusiasm, and momentum building around this emerging domain.

It's not just the Googles and Facebooks of the world who understand the potential in the system, although they have helped to trailblaze the path. UK government (cross-party) has helped lead public-sector engagement, and I have been encouraged by the government's desire for transparency and open data. Large corporates, start-ups, investors, NGOs, hackers, and citizens; all have interests in unlocking data, for many purposes.

This places the ODI in an amazing position. As a non-profit, non-partisan organisation, we can help to shape the landscape. First, we have to facilitate supply: providing 'plumbing-like' processes and technologystandards. Second, we need to make sure they are used: this means training people on what open data means, how to use it, and why it is valuable. Finally, we need to demonstrate value: nurturing organisations, new and old, to deliver positive change.

Much of the rhetoric around 'value creation' falls short, in my view, of an adequate definition of 'value'. We have therefore, begun, by defining three focal points for our lens on value: social, environmental, and economic.

To scale our efforts, we will also help mentors: training influencers within organisations, and creating experts that can empower others to unlock benefits from data.

Critically, we have to focus on information that is useful. 'Build it and they will come' is not a good foundation for any movement. As James Burke has noted, "information causes change, otherwise it's not information" .

We are therefore in the process of creating a culture of experimentation, to explore and discover what works, what is useful, what is surprising, and what may lead to unexpected results. Continuous experimentation also allows for failure – without it success is impossible.  In addition, there are some obvious areas, such as ensuring existing data is published in a structured, reliable, and traceable form – that will help us all access the data we need to make credible, informed decisions.

We are off to a flying start: £10m in seed-funding from the Technology Strategy Board, a 5,000sq ft space in Shoreditch, a post-graduate diploma in open data ready to go, a corporate membership model, our first start-up in-situ, a number of hack-days, including seed invention events such as Hack4Health, and our first public call: for data-driven artworks, to state clearly why data-as-culture is at the heart of our thinking.

Gavin Starks is the chief executive officer of the Open Data Institute@ukODI

Contact information Gavin Starks, Guardian Professional (email:
News type Inbrief
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Source of information Guardian
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News date 13/11/2012
Working language(s) ENGLISH