Everyone’s an innovator – opening data to create value

23 Jan 2013

Simon Wardley address the Cloud Capital Forum in Dublin in November. Photo by Conor McCabe Photography

While big data is cited by many experts as the next big thing for business, one respected IT thinker argues that when it comes to making government data and other datasets available, we have only scratched the surface when it comes to the potential of open data for value creation.

Simon Wardley, a researcher at the Leading Edge Forum in London, and voted one of the UK’s Top 50 Most Influential People in IT in ComputerWeekly‘s 2011 and 2012 polls, says we need to approach the hype around big data and open data with both an open mind and a healthy dose of caution.

Big data refers to the hordes of data that sits inside businesses and out there on the internet, and the analytical systems firms can use to hunt through the data to find value to improve the bottom line. For example, today an airline can do real-time sentiment analysis to see if passengers are happy with the latest meal options on flights, or if they’re off moaning about it on Twitter.

Open data, on the other hand, refers again to mountains of unstructured data sitting inside businesses and governments that those in the open data movement insist can be put to good use for citizens and entrepreneurs. For example, data on local authorities’ servers can be harnessed to tell citizens via their phones when the next bus is due to arrive, or where potholes exist on roads.

Examples of how open data has been used

The open data concept has been embraced with gusto by the Obama administration in the US and by the Norwegian government, while UK start-ups like PLACR have created hugely successful transport apps like Bus Mapper and UK Travel Option, thanks to a growing availability of public datasets there. Here in Ireland, Fingal County Council was in the vanguard, making datasets freely available online since 2010. Citizens and businesses are encouraged to turn this public data into apps, websites or other useful products – and many have.

Wardley, who has just written a report on the subject ‘Beware of Geeks Bearing Gifts – Strategies for an Increasingly Open Economy, says most of us are already part of the open and big-data cycle and don’t realise it. We carry smartphones that are more powerful than laptops, and just this week Facebook launched a new search service that tells you in depth what music your friends like and how many of them have been to Amsterdam.

“We’re capable of doing things today that we could only dream of 20 or 30 years ago,” says Wardley. “Computer infrastructure has become a commodity and suddenly we have these big-data systems which allow us to do very complex analytics of the data we hold.

“These days if I’m in London and I want to find a bank, I just pick up my phone and switch on Google’s voice-activated search and say ‘nearest bank’ and my phone tells me where the nearest bank is.”

Potential commercial opportunities

And the commercial opportunities in the future? “Ideally, I will want to be able to ask my phone ‘what does my mother want for Christmas?’ because my mother’s phone knows all her actions,” says Wardley. “We’re heading into a world where more and more actions are RFID (radio frequency ID) based, so her phone will know what she owns, what she’s thrown away, what she’s looking at, what she’s interested in. My phone will be able to make some sort of intelligent guesses as to what she might like for Christmas.

“I have a friend who has developed an alarm clock app which looks at the local train web service and works out if the train has been cancelled. If so it resets itself and wakes him up for the next train. It even automatically sends an email to work saying he’s going to be late because the train is delayed.”

The business potential is enormous. Wardley says tech giants like Apple and Amazon have already cottoned on to this curve and have created ecosystems – from the iTunes App Store to Amazon Web Services and EC2 – that will allow people build the systems that they can in turn exploit one day.

“Creation is always costly, so it is way better to get others to do that for you, and then commoditise it. A good example of this is the entire apps economy that grew up in the wake of the iPhone launch in 2007, not to mention the vast library of software being created by firms using Amazon’s cloud systems.

“That’s the clever use of open data,” says Wardley. “Get others to innovate for you.”

A version of this interview first appeared in The Sunday Times on 20 January.

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