Instead, it was made by George Edwards, the 18-year-old founder of Gas Sense. His company manufactures sensors which are used by aid agencies to track consumption of gas bottles they provide for heating and cooking. Data is shared to allow for benchmarking and mapping, thereby revealing any mis-match between aid provision and usage.
It is an example of how a new generation of entrepreneurs views open data as a given, rather than a bolt-on. Their guiding principle is that network thinking and data sharing multiply the value of data far beyond what any one business might achieve by reserving all data to itself.
For established firms this might seem like a reach, until you discover examples of it happening in unlikely places. Thomson Reuters might be thought of as the epitome of a business with a commercial interest in preserving intellectual rights over its information. But its Open PermID is a prime example of how creating an open data asset is delivering new benefits and competitive advantage.
“We believe our open data platform helps our customers and partners to solve their problems more creatively. Our customers told us they needed to be able to share the information we provide across their divisions and partners,” said Bob Bailey, chief information architect at Thomson Reuters.
Sharing data in this way is the key to driving the economic benefits of open data which still lag some way behind the societal advantages it creates. A PwC study into the 30 start-ups which the ODI has so far nurtured via its Odine seed fund identified a five- to ten-fold return on investment.
“This is not a vanity project,” said Jeni Tennison, deputy CEO and technical director of the ODI, delivering a speech on behalf of the fog-delayed former European Commissioner Neelie Kroes. Her view is that generation open needs to be “a coalition of all generations who believe in sharing information.”
Kroes’s speech noted that she is often asked where are the European equivalents of GAFE (Google, Amazon, Facebook, eBay), but that this is the wrong perspective. “Creating our own Google is looking backward. Those companies are already looking at the next step. A lot of the discussion around innovation says the best role for government is to get out of the way, but it has a very important part to play, especially with data,” said Tennison on her behalf.
Investment into open data, through backing of the ODI through to Vision 2020 funding, shows that, “open data can create jobs, build businesses, increase productivity and improve the environment, but only if developers see the commercial and economic benefits it will deliver.”
Direct proof of how public-private interactions around open data might make this happen came from Matthew Hancock MP, Minster for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General. “Government needs ‘dog fooding’ - using our own open data in our own operations, focusing on how data flows into government, how it is collected, who uses it and how we can make it available,” he told the Summit.
The UK remains a leader in the provision of open data sets by its government, but Hancock argues it needs to become a customer of the new open data-powered generation of businesses, thereby creating a revenue stream which will be part of the payback from its upstream investment.
Minecraft is a perhaps unlikely example of how government investment into data can then loop back into the commercial realm. Defra has created a three-dimensional digital map of the landscape to support a wide range of decision making, such as flood risk management. One local authority used this data to print a 3D model which it then filled with water to demonstrate how different flood defence options might work. The online game has uploaded the same information to generate gaming environments for its players.
Farmers and gamers working off the same data set is a good example of what is meant by generation open. Hancock argued that, “there is much more to do and it needs to go further. It is not enough just to be open - that is just a means to an end. It makes government work better for the people of the country and enable them to use services in a frictionless way.”
Civil servants need to learn the skills involved just as much as commercial data users, noted Hancock, so the Cabinet Office has established a data science accelerator programme to train them. “It is not about turning everybody into a data scientist, but giving them the skills necessary to understand.”
Reviewing what has changed in the short, three-year life of the ODI, its CEO Gavin Starks noted that, “when we first started, people confused closed, personal and open data. The data spectrum helps us to differentiate those things.” An ODI graphic distributed at the event shows those data types with examples and how they need to inter-connect to create a beneficial eco-system.
There are some hurdles which have yet to be overcome. Throughout the day, repeated references were made to the decision to leave PAF as a commercial data set, rather than making it open data. The ODI has put its Open Address UK project into hibernation because of the “legal roadblocks” which private ownership of the postcode present. By contrast, OpenCorporates is a significant success story that is competing in the commercial market with major business data owners.
To continue the velocity of open data and ensure its migration into the commercial sector, the next phase has to focus on core assets. Sir Nigel Shadbolt, co-founder of the ODI, pointed towards, “the fundamental role of data infrastructure. We are used to talking about roads or the power grid in this way and the need to service, invest and maintain them. Data is like that - part of the national infrastructure. It must be open, managed, maintained and invested.”
That is a major task for generation open to undertake. But there is every reason to be optimistic, given the level of support from government and investors right through to start-ups and the young generation of entrepreneurs. Open data needs to be a full spectrum of data types and activities and to shine brightly, they need to come together.