How to spark a business revolution out of open data

12 Oct 2011

A European Commission study from 2009 estimated the value of public sector data across the EU at €27bn

Jonathan Raper, the CEO of a UK firm called PLACR that has a strong track record in bridging location and travel technologies to the public via open data, explains the opportunity: “We’re not at the point of buying ocean-going yachts but we’ve turned it into something that pays salaries.”

The open data revolution is one that has been gaining pace in the US, the UK and elsewhere around the world, resulting in vast hordes of data collected by governments and public bodies being released to software developers who turn that data into valuable services for citizens and, in some cases, businesses that generate jobs.

A European Commission study from 2009 estimated the value of public sector data across the EU at €27bn.

In Raper’s case, PLACR’s products include popular apps like Bus Mapper, UK Travel Option and that thousands of consumers in the UK use.

As pointed out by DERI this morning, local and national governments generate and collect valuable information, be that demographic information, roads extension plans, teacher-pupil ratios in schools, hospital attendance rates or planning applications. Often this information is not publically available.

Raper says open data provides endless opportunities for SMEs and the public to enhance society and realise business ideas. Successful businesses are built on the use of public data in relation to travel timetables, traffic flows, water quality and crime statistics. Apps in the UK include Roadworks Database, School Scout and Carehome Map.

Raper will be attending the launch of the DubLinked open data event at the Civic Offices at 8.30am on Tuesday, 18 October, hosted by Dublin’s four local authorities (Fingal, Dublin City, South Dublin and Dun Laoghaire Rathdown). (All are welcome to the event and should email to register).

DubLinked is being built around the concept of an “Open Zone” which will be accessible to all, and a “Research Zone” which will be membership based for a small fee. The challenge is to be weighted in favour of SMEs and reduce the time it takes for an app to be tested and get to market. In the past, some public-sector bodies have had a tendency to hold onto information so long that it makes it impractical for the SME.

DubLinked has a chance to get this right. Dublin is an ideal testing ground for this data and successful apps can be the basis of ‘smart cities’ in other locations. Apps can be converted into intellectual property, such as software products, and exported to Paris, London, Shanghai and elsewhere.

Open data will create more jobs and lead to greater transparency and accountability

According to Raper, open data works on multiple levels in terms of political accountability and transparency. “The State hitherto had a monopoly on information to make decisions. The opportunity here is to liberalise the market on data and no longer have State institutions sitting on data that people could use to improve their lives and create jobs.”

Raper is familiar with the arguments about why politicians and civil servants fear the public seeing this goldmine of previously hidden information.

“Quite often the release of the data does illustrate how systems had been built inefficiently, wastage of the public purse, ill-advised contracts, misdeeds, errors and mistakes.

“But ultimately, that fades when you consider what you can do to improve things like education, transport, fight crime and improve healthcare.

“If you are developing an e-business that can provide valuable services – you need to go to the data that can make the biggest difference for people’s lives. Simple things like knowing on a tactical level when the next bus is coming.”

Raper says PLACR has benefited from the UK local government apparatus taking an enlightened approach to open data and opening up hitherto hidden data sets. “We feed that data into HTML5 apps and have developed useful products for citizens, like Tube-Radar.”

As well as the useful information for citizens, open data also leads to better quality information about accountability. “A few months ago there was a strike on the London Underground, and the press turned to us for impartial information about operational systems.”

Raper says that while US President Barack Obama’s government was amongst the first to embrace open data, the UK is now ahead of the US. “The US decommissioned some of its infrastructure around open data because it was opening up all sorts of problems for civil servants and administrators who are reticent to accept change,” adding that in the US the Sunlight Foundation has expressed concern about the slowing down of open data being released.

Nevertheless, he says, the open data revolution is moving at light speed across the world and in the UK the leading proponent of the open-data movement and a person responsible for encouraging the release of data sets is an Irishwoman named Emer Coleman, director of digital products at the Greater London Authority.

According to Raper, the situation in the UK is many local authorities are taking seriously the duty of care by the UK government to release spending data and embrace accountability and a list of those that have opened up their data can be found at the OpenlyLocal website.

“The typical blocking of open data occurs when there are agencies that don’t want to lose their monopoly on information. Sometimes they are sitting on mistakes that the data will reveal.

“Also in some cases, management are technologically illiterate. One state official went as far as denying any API could be produced to access a specific data set, despite the fact that one of the major APIs ever built on an API was sourced from this official’s department.”

Despite the blocking efforts in some areas, Raper is confident the dam will break eventually. “There is a pot of gold sitting in government. If we can get that data out there and break up this monopoly, the more value can be wrung for the public good.”

Raper says Ireland is behind the open data trends, but Dublin’s four local authorities are leading the charge locally.

“You are one of Europe’s major ICT centres. It’s an absolutely natural thing that you guys should be able to liberalise data and create a sandpit from which SMEs can grow.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years