Exploring the Potential of Open Data

Loraine Lawson

When I was a reporter, I had to file my fair share of open records requests — even when we all knew the information I wanted qualified as an open record.

After awhile, I developed a pretty good feel for the agencies that would give me a hassle. For the most part, these people were at small government agencies and didn’t understand the sunshine laws in their state.

Maybe that’s why I believe the Open Data movement has so much potential: It’s like one big sunshine law push. And not surprisingly, some agencies fight the release of their data. Nor am I surprised to learn that when they do release it, it’s not always in a usable condition.

“‘Freeing the data’ is just the first step,” Christopher Meyer told O’Reilly Radar’s Alex Howard earlier this month. Meyer is the vice president for external affairs and information services at non-profit Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports. “It has to be organized in a consumer-friendly format. That means a much more intense effort by the government to understand what consumers want and how they can best absorb the data.”


Meyer said Consumer Reports and its policy and action arm, Consumers Union, are pushing federal and state governments and private health providers to release information about hospital-acquired infections. This is no small problem; these infections kill about 100,000 people a year, he said.

There’s a world of under-used information like that sitting in government databases, from state citizen complaint registries to environmental pollution trends to food inspection data.

Government agencies drag their feet on releasing data for any number of reasons. Sometimes, businesses actually pressure the government not to release the data, according to Howard’s article.

But one idea behind Open Data, and one I happen to embrace, is that dragging problems into the sunshine is key to fixing them. Meyer discussed this with Howard, pointing out that even though the data on infections was released in 1999, little was done. Consumers Union championed the cause in 2003 and so far has had laws passed in 30 states to disclose the data.

Open data isn’t just about consumers and transparencies. Governments are investing because they hope to see new businesses emerge, with new jobs. In short, it’s seen as a way to spur economic growth, even possibly a new Open Data economy.

Howard is exploring this question in an ongoing series on the issue, and I recommend you start following it if you’re in the data business. A particularly good piece was his interview with Harvey Lewis, research director for the analytics department of Deloitte UK. Howard asked how governments can reap an “economic ROI” on open data projects.

To do that, government agencies will need to first focus their efforts on data that will have the widest possible impact on the economy, Lewis said. Then, they’ll need to ensure the data is collected and updated on a regular basis.

The data also needs to be made available through APIs so that it’s easy for developers to access and use, he added.

On the flip side, there’s little doubt businesses and start-ups will benefit from open data initiatives. So far, it’s still primarily the domain of experiments, with a few early adopters. But there’s no shortage of business models for it. Michele Osella, a researcher and business analyst in the Business Model & Policy Innovation Unit at the Istituto Superiore Mario Boella in Italy, sent Howard a list of eight business models, with examples, for open data.

Most of the businesses that have used open datasets focus on consumer information. For example, Zillow and Trulia use public data to share tax and estimated prices with consumers shopping for a new home or apartment.

But open data initiatives could prove transformative for whole industries. Gavin Starks heads the UK’s Open Data Initiative, a nonprofit with 10 million pounds to invest in open data research, development and startups. Starks told Howard the ODI has already identified 200 million pounds a year in savings for health services in the UK, just by evaluating data on one class of drugs used in one area.

“Looking at the entire dataset, the analytics revealed different patterns, and from that, cost differences,” Starks said. “If we carried out this research over a year ago, for example, we could have saved 200 million pounds over the last year. It really is quite significant. …We think this research could be repeated against different classes of drugs and replicated internationally.”

That would have quite an effect, not just on the hospital industry, but on governments and individuals as well.



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