Andrew Walmsley on Digital: Free your data

Andrew Walmsley on Digital
Andrew Walmsley on Digital

Organisations from mining firms to government bodies can benefit from opening up their data.

A few weeks ago, the government threw open its doors, allowing public access to a wide range of data held by its departments and agencies. It amounts to a reversal of attitudes within the civil service, whose default position had hitherto been to regard everything as secret even after it had been published in the press, and it has vital lessons for the commercial sector.

Statistics.gov.uk, the website of the Office for National Statistics, has been around since the mid-90s, giving public access to statistical reporting across a range of government interests from hospital waiting times to exclusions from school in Scotland. It has always been a fascinating resource, but, while you could download the statistics to use yourself, their presentation and format was already decided for you.

What Data.gov.uk does is different, often giving access to the raw data. So why (apart from the warm fuzzy feeling it gets from being open) does the government bother?

First, by giving open access to the raw data, people can bring new and innovative ways to examine and visualise it; ways that, on its own, the government might not come up with. Second, with limited resources, there are only so many statisticians it can throw at a problem; opening up the data allows all interested parties to contribute.

The example which persuaded the cabinet is at bit.ly/9NTUyK - a mashup that displays on Google maps all the cycling accidents in 2007 where injuries were reported to police. Try zooming in on your neighbourhood - straightaway, you can see where the clusters of blobs indicate accident blackspots.

On a personal level, you might take more care in those areas. But it also empowers road-safety groups, traffic planners and street designers by making what previously only existed as lists of locations into an immediately insightful visualisation.

Since its launch, sites mapping house prices, renewable energy projects, street safety and potholes have appeared, as well as a clever site that lets you put in your budget and the time you are prepared to commute, and recommends an area of London to live in.

Effectively, by making the raw data available, society can crowdsource the insight.

This is not new thinking. In 2000, when Goldcorp, a Canadian mining company, published 400MB of geological data online in a competition with a $575,000 prize fund, it astounded the mining industry, which viewed this sort of data as a closely guarded secret. More than 1000 people from 50 countries got working on the data, and identified 110 targets at the site, 80% of which yielded gold - worth $3bn so far.

The breakthrough came from having fresh minds explore the problem, take different routes and find new ways of interrogating the data.

It's an approach that has famously paid off for Apple, which launched its iPhone app store in 2008. Developers can create and sell apps, receiving 70% of the revenue. The model has also been adopted by Amazon's Kindle, which plans to take the same cut.

Both Amazon and Apple learned from Facebook, which threw open its doors to developers in 2007. Within a year there were 33,000 apps developed, from horoscopes to games; a range of options for users that the company could never have created on its own, and a competitive advantage that caused the site's popularity to rocket.

Until now, if you wanted to innovate, you had to own the innovation. What Facebook, Apple and the government have discovered is a valuable lesson for us all: that we can gain more benefit from the innovation we enable than from the innovation we own.

- Andrew Walmsley is co-founder of i-level

30 SECONDS ON ... DATA.GOV.UK

- Data.gov.uk is a site offering a vast array of government-held, non-personal data, from education statistics to crime and traffic data, for private or commercial use.

- A Beta version of the site has been running since last September. It was opened to the public last month in a launch with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web, who has been overseeing the project.

- Berners-Lee described the government's data as 'an untapped resource', adding: 'We have already spent the money on (it) and when it is sitting there on a disk in (an) office it is wasted.'

- By mid-January, about 2400 developers had registered to test the site and provide feedback. Users can browse more than 2900 datasets. There is an integrated wiki and forum where the user community can discuss issues that arise and share their knowledge.

- People can suggest ideas, build apps and put forward new ways of visualising the data or changes to the site's architecture.

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