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Don't undervalue the unintended consequences of opening up data

By: Judith Carr
Published: Monday, September 1, 2014 - 08:32 GMT Jump to Comments

There are many reasons for opening up data, economic, political, social. But serendipitous outcomes, unforeseen and unintended, can be the most persuasive and rewarding

I became interested in open data after a lecture on smart cities and open data by Rick Robinson of IBM. What really got me interested was his stories of how information/data was used in unintended, serendiptous ways. The only way this can happen is if the data is open.

The story that grabbed my attention and enthusiasm was how the data from instruments in Galway bay - that collected sound data on dolphins and porpoise movements - was initially used by the chemical industry to regulate their discharges, then by local fishermen to help look for fish, and then by the restaurant trade who used the data to plan their menus.

I remember the story, but looking back for details for this blog, they were difficult to find. There is, of course, a paragraph in Rick's blog. The details of the story are, however, out there somewhere. In all probability my searching was just not quite good enough, the search terms used not quite right, and yes maybe I did not go right down to the bottom of page 10 on every search.

There are several points to make here about open data, that actually have nothing to do with the technical data that forms the basis of that story. Firstly, 'opening up' your data is not enough - if you don't give it a URL, people are just not going to find it. Secondly, how do you measure serendipitous use of your information/data?

The second point links into one of the powerful 'whys' of open data. It is fairly easy to conceive of the benefits of data/information that has been opened for a fairly long time, such as weather data and more increasingly transportation data. In the 2013 Deloitte report for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, it was estimated that the economic value alone of saved time from using the live data from Transport for London apps was between £15 million and £58 million p.a. That is just one year, for one city. Even though this is clearly an estimate with a wide variance, taking the lowest figure is still pretty compelling.

So there you have the first big 'why' for the re-use of information/data, the estimated amount of value creation and savings. In this context, we are talking public sector information. That is information/data that is generated by citizens going about their daily lives and availing themselves of services. 

The Deloitte report separates out measuring re-use of the data into narrow economic value and wider societal value (such as the serendipitous use as per my example). Narrow economic value alone is estimated at £1.8 billion p.a., the wider societal value at £5 billion p.a.

These figures are so large, it is hard to envisage even trying to estimate how such a figure would affect ourselves as individuals or the economy. It is clear that to engage and connect with people, stories of re-use and inventive ways to use public sector information are needed. It is that warm fuzzy feeling you get when you hear about how something helped someone. Everyone understands warm fuzzy feelings, even if they don't engage with data.

The 2013 report did 'fess' up and say it was hard to measure the wider use of open public sector information, the unexpected value creation, efficiencies and well being factor. So, if they found it a difficult concept to measure, how much harder is it for those with no connection to 'open data' thinking, who work in a world of quantifiable rate of returns, bottom lines and financial planning. That sounds an awful lot like, well, nearly everyone.

In supporting opening up, you have to value more than just monetary worth. Those who appreciate making efficiencies, creating new markets, market disruption, see open data as a tool to be used. Those who value transparency, the right of the citizen to see where their well earned taxes are being used, feel open data will show the good and bad and lead to more engagement. This is closely related to accountability of organisations that use government money - the opening up of data can show where the spending takes place and is an aid to make sure money gets where it is needed. An open data policy can sit in many political camps.

This is one of the reasons open data is here to stay.

Rick Robinson - How cities can exploit the Information  Revolution

2013 Deloitte report for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.

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