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Pushing Open Data onto the Global Stage

The U.K.’s Open Data Institute works under the premise that government open data projects worldwide should be driven by private-sector businesses built around open data.

In the U.S., open data has its advocates in civic hacker groups, politicians and a small but passionate group of transparency organizations. In the U.K. and around the world, the sounding bullhorn might most readily be attributed to the Open Data Institute (ODI), a highly visible organization that’s gaining influence across the globe.

The ODI was co-founded in 2012 by World Wide Web patriarch Tim Berners-Lee and Nigel Shadbolt, a professor of artificial intelligence and head of the Web and Internet Science Group at the University of Southampton. The two leveraged their experience coordinating the U.K.’s open data project to establish the ODI as a collaboration and education hub for open data initiatives — efforts that make public and private data digitally accessible and easy to use.

Headquartered in London, the organization now has 18 branches or “nodes” worldwide, and works under the premise that government open data projects should be driven by private-sector businesses built around open data. From Moscow to Osaka, Japan, to Buenos Aires, Argentina — and now with a growing number of nodes in the U.S. — the ODI contends that if open data is to be sustainable, it must be about more than government transparency, but about hand-to-mouth realities, such as jobs, investment and cost savings.

Supporting this cause, the U.K. government furnished the ODI with more than $16.4 million at its start. The group’s activities include incubating open data startups, crafting code for open data projects and pairing data sets with viable business models, through its nodes around the globe. As the ODI implements its marching orders, the defining challenges will be how far it can reach and how lasting it can become.

A Global Undertaking

From the ODI’s initial funding, $4 million is earmarked for international expansion of the node network. Evidence of ODI’s international expansion strategy can be found in the 18 nodes established in just under two years, the last five of which were added in February. The ODI isn’t looking to compete with or replace existing open data groups, but rather complement their efforts by offering supportive resources, including open data certifications, courses and outreach tools.

“The potential of the node network lies in the different strengths of the nodes themselves; however, they all come together around a common purpose and charter: to foster an open data culture and bring about tangible business benefits. The freedom of operation helps them provide tailored services to their local markets,” said Richard Stirling, the ODI’s international director, who manages the nodes.

In Moscow, the ODI branch is based in Non-Governmental Informational Culture, a nonprofit group supporting open government, data-driven journalism and open data education. In Buenos Aires, the ODI operates through the Center for the Implementation of Public Policies Promoting Equity and Growth, a research and public policy think tank. And in Osaka, the node is headquartered inside Innovate Osaka, a startup incubator, educator and tech proponent.

Despite diverse backgrounds, the ODI unifies nodes through regional and city charters promoting open data projects, training, research and outreach. Direct communication is done with node advisory boards through quarterly video conferencing and in-person gatherings in London.

“It is still early days,” Stirling said. “We had our first node gathering [in February], where we brought all the nodes over to London for two days to form a shared view of what the next three months will bring for the network, identifying the priorities and dividing up the work between us.”

Resources, he said, will be put toward defining impact efforts and identifying metrics to gauge success.

“There are certain things we will need to measure on a unified basis to be able to check the health of the network — things like reach and impact. In time we hope to publish these on a public dashboard so everyone can see how the network is performing and the impact it is having around the world,” he added.

The parent ODI organization estimates that during 2013, it created more than $27.8 million in value. Examples of this work include hackathons, consulting, classes, open data startup investments and research projects, like the DaPaaS platform that publishes open data and hosts applications; and the OpenDataMonitor, a program that lets users monitor and use analytics on open data across Europe.

The ODI on U.S. Soil

The ODI is aggressively making its presence known in the U.S., devoting resources to new offices, including a national node.

In terms of numbers, the U.S. has a total of five nodes, the most of any nation affiliated with the ODI. These include Chicago, Philadelphia, North Carolina, Hawaii and an experimental national node that hopes to be a government “super collaborator” on open data efforts nationwide.

Financially, the national node has garnered endorsement from the Knight Foundation, a major philanthropy known for its civic technology investments. Knight made an initial $250,000 investment for a six- to nine-month experimental trial and, depending on results, could provide additional funding for up to four years of activity.

The U.S. initiative is led by technologist Waldo Jaquith, who sees open data as a valuable yet fragile movement in government. Jaquith said the national node won’t be a lobbying effort pointed at a bill’s passage or channeled at a single project, but a large-scale, multi-state collaboration effort that brings open data resources to government.

“In the U.S. [federal collaboration] doesn’t get you much. State governments are so important, so powerful here, that you can’t just have one great relationship with one great government and really accomplish much,” he said, contrasting the U.S. against Europe, where countries are often smaller and more unified.

Launched early this year, the national node has two yet-to-be-disclosed projects under way with two jurisdictions and is collaborating weekly with other notable U.S. organizations such as the Sunlight Foundation and Data Transparency Coalition.

Other collaborators, of course, include nodes in states and cities.

“There’s a shortage of people who do what we do. If you look at cities around the U.S. they all need open data specialists and there are not that many of us,” said Jason Hare, founder of the North Carolina node that’s based in the Open Raleigh program.

Statistics back up Hare’s statement. According to a 2013 study by Gartner Research, demand for data and analytics expertise will represent 4.4 million jobs globally by 2015, yet only one-third of those positions will be filled. The North Carolina node will eventually offer open data education and certification to support that need.

“Five years down the road, we’d like to be a nonpartisan data advocacy group that helps state agencies and municipalities — and any public-sector jurisdiction — to join the open data marketplace we’re creating,” Hare said.

“We’re currently working with [Gov. Pat McCrory’s] innovation office to have the office use the ODI as a vehicle to create a statewide open data policy and to create a statewide open data program.”

ODI nodes in Philadelphia and Hawaii are among the newest and were announced in February alongside Osaka; Sheffield, England; and Seoul, South Korea. Hawaii’s node works within Hawaii Open Data, a 501(c)3 organization dedicated to advancing open data, API standards and the economic benefits of transparency. In Philadelphia, the node is headquartered in Azavea, a data mapping company and creator of OpenData, a community open data portal.

“For us, becoming an ODI node was a way to more effectively support the promotion of open data,” said Azavea President Robert Cheetham.

Azavea is a B-Corporation — a for-profit company that works to solve social and environmental problems (similar to civic technology businesses or urban impact companies) — Cheetham noted, and the ODI node aligns with the company’s social change efforts. In the past, such undertakings have included technical support for the Haitian Earthquake Registry project, food donation delivery maps, crime map testing and numerous other humanitarian data mapping projects.

“Our mission is applying geospatial technology to improving communities as well as advancing the state of the art through research. For us the ODI is a logical extension of our mission,” Cheetham said.

Like Cheetham, Hare said what prompted him to establish an ODI node is the tangible structure and inclusive nature of the ODI’s open data mission, one that he envisions will eventually extend to every state.

Open Data Super-Connector

Jaquith said the U.S. ODI’s top goal is to act as a super-connector in the space, uniting the hundreds of companies that rely on open government data, from small vendors with expertise in parsing, analyzing and managing open data to the many nonprofits, community groups and civic hackers. The overarching goal, Jaquith said, is to connect all these efforts and submit the network to government officials as an economic resource for private and public growth.

For state and city nodes, the mission is similar, but scaled down in geography.

“We want open data to be a sustainable and widely used concept throughout the U.S., in government and the private sector,” Jaquith said.

Hudson Hollister, the executive director at the Data Transparency Coalition based in Washington, D.C., said the ODI has been instrumental to the ongoing effort of open data. Specific to the coalition’s mission, to lobby for data transparency, Hollister said the national ODI has been a valuable reference point to identify important data sets and use cases to influence legislation.   

“They’re helping businesses create value and building an ecosystem that would be very hard to dislodge,” said Hollister.

“It’s much harder for a government to stop publishing machine-readable data that is being used by somebody to create value and so we’re really excited that the U.S. ODI has been founded and that Waldo and his team have begun their work.”

As open data efforts in the U.S. and across the world continue to gain momentum, the ODI will likely call on additional open data advocates for support. Jaquith emphasized that the ODI aspires to support sustainable advocacy for open data over empire building and transparent data practices over politics.

“What the ODI has established as a model, is one where you can have an organization that can be connected and do meaningful work,” Jaquith said. “To establish and treat open data, not as a lark, but as something serious that’s here to stay. And this organization is going to help make that happen.”

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.