In the public sector, the idea of open access to data is reasonably well accepted, if somewhat incoherent in its execution. For example, during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, researchers made genomic data openly available for further input. In this way, it was confirmed that the virus had spread from Guinea to Sierra Leone, that it was sustained by human-to-human transmission, and that it was mutating rapidly in certain areas.
However, the researchers subsequently reported, “What followed was three months of stasis, during which no new virus sequence information was made public even though thousands of samples were transferred to researchers' freezers across the world.” They called for greater data sharing through collaborative networks.
While this is an example of what is essentially academic crowdsourcing, as opposed to deploying accessible data to provide new products and services, it illustrates the point that in the public sector there are often great intentions that are hampered by poor execution. The business world has the opposite problem – great execution marred by questionable intentions.
If it’s only a handful of giant corporations that control access to vast swathes of data, keeping what they collect to themselves, then it’s only those companies that get to decide what new products and services get created.
Here is a small but perfectly formed instance of using openly available data to make life just a little bit better. If you’ve ever used London’s subway system, or ‘the Tube’ as it is better known to locals, then you’ll know that trains arrive with some carriages jam-packed and others virtually empty. This is very irritating if you happen to be standing on the wrong place on the platform when the train arrives. And, if you have mobility issues or difficulties standing on public transport it can mean you have to miss that train and hope for more room on the next.
Transport for London (TfL) releases its real-time data and engages developers to innovate with it. As a result, a developer created a way of visualizing, in real time, which carriages are full and which have room as a train is approaching a station. Passengers can get a better sense of where to stand in order to board a less crowded carriage. This could also improve the boarding process and reduce the length of time a train has to wait on the platform. The visualization could either be displayed directly on the platform, could be made available to the station staff who manage the platforms, or directly to smartphones connected to the underground WiFi. Daily life, quietly improved.
Sure, the big players release APIs that allow developers to build on their data but this can hardly be described as acting for the greater good since it is selective. In other words, it limits the innovation and benefits, to which, it can be argued, society should have an automatic right, to pre-approved areas that pose little risk to the companies’ revenue streams.
Cost-free access to public sector data is one thing but what does access to open data look like for businesses, and, what benefits might that have for the businesses, their customers, and society as a whole?
Let’s say we are a business that operates connected bikes. We only have access to our own data and so are quite limited in what we can offer our users; we can let them know how far they travel, how long that took and perhaps how many calories they burn, that kind of thing. Now imagine if we had access to data from other companies; this could be road data, traffic data, city data, weather data and suddenly what we can offer our users is a lot more complete, a whole lot more accurate and better for everyone involved.
Not only that, maybe our data is going to be very useful for another business that might combine it with other sources to create something completely different!
Moreover, in an open world, partnerships can be formed to unlock value. For instance, city systems, from energy to transport to waste disposal, have traditionally operated independently of each other. To become ‘smart’, save energy and serve more people, these separate companies could form partnerships to share data and resources and thereby create a new, valuable ecosystem through collaboration.
We are at an inflection point: one path leads us to a world in which the commercial interests of a few large corporations will dictate what kind of innovation happens, when and by whom, in ways that will profoundly affect our lives. Another path leads to an open world, where people and businesses are masters of their own data, where new and exciting partnerships can be formed, where businesses can cooperate in order to monetize their own data and create better products and services for all.
Which path would you rather be on?