The once novel notion of open data has become nearly a byword, a concept easily plucked, devoutly professed, and almost unanimously received by those in technology, particularly in the public sector. Though a boon for the movement, experts say it's time to get beyond the fanfare. Now, it’s about tangible action.
No group knows this better than London’s Open Data Institute (ODI), an organization founded in 2012 by Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, and co-founder Nigel Shadbolt, a professor of artificial intelligence and head of the Web and Internet science group at the University of Southampton. Previously the two were prominent figures involved in Data.gov.uk, a government-sponsored project aimed at opening up a majority of non-private government data.
At launch, the ODI was supercharged by the U.K. government with more than $16.4 million for open data efforts, which is largely directed at linking open data to private-sector demand. The center is currently in a state of expansion, with a mission to open up public and private data worldwide.
Organizational priorities include incubating open data startups, providing code to facilitate open data use and helping to pair data sets with viable business models.
“We’re still very much at the beginning of really demonstrating the value of what’s possible,” said Gavin Starks, ODI’s CEO.
Starks, whose background in tech research and investment dates back to 1993, said the open data movement — the practice of opening up private and public data for free use — is now ready for the next phase of growth. He likened open data’s current stage of development to the Internet of the early '90s.
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“Simply having an open portal where a government just publishes data is not enough. You have to actually engage with the commercial sector,” Starks said.
Crediting Berners-Lee and Shadbolt for getting ODI off the ground, Starks explained that their long-term vision is for the center to be a collaborative hub where participants from top-tier companies, as well as governments and individuals learn how to leverage open data. Similar to the Internet’s growth and refinement, Starks said creating demand through collaboration is the best way to ensure high-quality data gets released publicly.
And the organization has some impressive stats to date. The ODI has opened up 599 data sets and has assisted a dozen startups to generate more than $2.3 million in income in 2013.
In addition, more than $1.2 million has been invested in an open data innovation program, nearly $660,000 for research, $775,000 for philanthropic investment and about $4 million toward international expansion efforts. Another $2 million has been set aside for ODI’s Challenge Series, a contest for entrepreneurs investigating the business potential in open data.
But ODI doesn't want to be just another tech incubator catering to a certain niche. The goal for the center, Starks said, is to bootstrap not only companies, but also full ecosystems around specific types of data sets.
On the front lines, this means the center identifies valuable released or unreleased data sets, identifies potential users, finds business models that make the data sets valuable long term, then collaborates with governments to release data for startups and the public.
“We are a convening point between private and commercial groups,” Starks said.
The ODI is extending its influence at a rapid rate. This can most readily be seen in its national and international nodes — branches of ODI hosted in existing businesses, universities and nongovernmental organizations.
Starks said that in three months the ODI went from having zero nodes to having an international set of 13, an impressive feat considering the organization's recent start. The U.S. is currently home to three — a national node and nodes based in Chicago and North Carolina. The U.S. node is still in beta, but plans are for it to become a hub of independent nongovernmental organizations that collaboratively promote viable open data programs. The Chicago and North Carolina offices are involved in community open data projects, research and outreach.
“It’s likely we’ll have more at the state level and country in the near future,” Starks said.
Adding to ODI’s U.S. influence, the Knight Foundation, a leading investor in civic tech growth, has awarded the U.S. node $250,000 to study U.S. companies using open government data to create businesses and develop new products and services.
“We are at the very beginning of open data as infrastructure. By telling those stories, we will get people to look more into what is possible,” Starks said.
Notwithstanding current efforts and a reported $27.8 million in value created during 2013, Starks said the ODI still has much to do before the movement takes hold globally. The objective is for private- and public-sector stakeholders to give more than their blessing, but actually commit to open data use. Holding many of them back, Starks said, are fears about whether or not devoting resources toward open data efforts will pay off, and in the case of government, whether data is suitable for public release.
While he understands the fears, from Stark's vantage point, the rewards of open data exceed the potentiall pitfalls and more than justify the development costs, especially as cities struggle to sustain large populations and find answers to modern challenges.
“There’s a huge amount of value to be unlocked when you look at what problems we can solve … this is not a U.S. or U.K. challenge, this is a challenge for everyone,” Starks said.