What did open data ever do for us?

The UK is leading the world on open data. Open data is publicly released raw data, often from the government or public services, which is made available to everyone so they are free to use or reuse it any way they like. While it can be read by individuals, for example in a spreadsheet, it is primarily designed to be ‘machine-readable’, so it can be inserted directly into computer programmes written by those outside government.

The government has made releasing open data a priority because:

  1. It makes the government more accountable to citizens and strengthens our democracy (for example DFiD’s aid tracker)
  2. It brings us better public services (for example The Guardian’s GCSE Schools Guide)
  3. And it feeds economic and social growth (for example transport data intermediary Placr)

What brings open data to life is how people use it. And in the few short years since we started releasing it, there have been hundreds of examples. A few illustrative uses made of open data are listed below.

1. Accountability of government to citizens and stronger democracy

Spending

Citizens have a right to know what the government is spending their money on, and the impetus for this is only strengthened during a period of austerity. The open data agenda has driven the release of spending data which has allowed people to see more of the Government’s accounts. The Government’s internal spending and management information can be interrogated via the Government Interrogating Spending Tool (GIST). For overseas development spending the International Aid Transparency Initiative enables tax payers across the globe to see how their money is used to provide assistance to those in need, a process given additional visibility in the UK through DFiD’s aid tracker.

Journalists and campaigning organisations use government spending data to shine a light on government decisions and to support campaigns. Examples include the Open Knowledge Foundation’s Open Spending which tracks how every government across the world – including our own – spends our money. Others include the Taxpayer’s Alliance Town Hall Rich List and The Guardian Datablog’s spending cuts maps.

Transparency

Open data also helps us see into the inner workings of government and how it is structured, how to get in contact with senior officials and even how much they are paid. You can see all the legislation that the UK parliament has passed since 1267 at www.legislation.gov.uk, a site that combines amendments to legislation over the years in a properly laid out legal document, but which also represents legislation as data that a computer can understand and interpret. The voting history of Members of Parliament can be followed via the independent www.theyworkforyou.com, and there’s also a growing body of open data from local authorities including London Datastore, Birmingham Civic Dashboard and a number of others detailed at Openly Local.

Corporate accountability

Open data can also be used to hold corporations to account: Open Corporates holds information on 55 million companies across the world, improving knowledge for investors and others wanting to undertake audit and due diligence work, but the site also collaborates with organisations including the World Bank to reduce opportunities for complex company structures to be used to evade tax and other obligations. And the Extractives Industry Transparency Initiative tells citizens how their country is managing its natural resources to help prevent corruption and conflict.

Improving decision-making

Open data can also help citizens make effective choices in their lives, for instance by giving people information about where they live. You can discover how much crime happens on your street and where traffic accidents are likely to happen. Illustreets shows you the best places to live in the UK with data about housing, transport, crime and schools, Locatable helps you buy and sell your home and Mapumental show public transport travel time maps. You can find out how clean the water is on your local beach with Beachselecta and whether your home is at risk of flooding via Shoothill floodmaps. The Guardian has created a map of all food hygiene ratings, with www.ratemyplace.org.uk providing a more detailed service for citizens in a selection of local authorities. And if you’re buying a new bike, you can check to see if it is stolen property.

Research and campaigns

Research organisations and charities are both consumers and producers of open data. New Philanthropy Capital helps charitable organisations better measure their impact including through open data, as do organisations such as NCVO, the Nominet Trust and Lamplight Database Systems. The Big Lottery Fund has recently released open data about grants made back to 2004, and the innovation institute NESTA has established a ‘Civil Society Data Network’ to develop opportunities with charities and open data. Open Access to scientific papers has a long history and has gained recent high profile coverage due to the campaigns of Ben Goldacre. Academic researchers are also active consumers of open data from www.data.gov.uk.

2. Better Public Services.

Reducing waste

Open data is also improving the services that government provides to citizens. It’s helped the state get a better deal on contracts by encouraging more innovative SMEs to bid for work using Contract Finder and G-cloud. It’s also enabled companies outside government to identify waste – for example Mastodon C discovered over £200m of savings to the NHS if GPs prescribed cheaper generic Statin drugs.

Citizen voice and choice

Open data can also give citizens more choice and a stronger voice in the public services they use, prising open the bureaucracies and professions and putting information directly in the hands of the public. The Guardian GCSE Schools Guide uses open data to help parents give a preference for the most appropriate schools for their children. And the release of NHS heart surgery performance data via NHS Choices is thought to have contributed to continued improvements in public standards. In addition, the GP Ratings app allows patients to compare GP surgeries in their local areas, and includes star ratings that indicate whether or not patients would recommend the surgery to others, the numbers of male and female GPs, and even indications of how helpful (or not) reception staff are.

Crowd-sourcing solutions

Fixmystreet is a product of digital social entrepreneurs mysociety and allows citizens to conveniently log problems with their council such as broken streetlights and fly-tipping in order to prompt a response. As the amount of data produced by inanimate objects such as our phones and cars continues to grow (sometimes referred to as the Internet of Things or Sensors), innovative public services are starting to make use of this. One example in the US city of Boston is Streetbump which uses the accelerometer in smart phones to detect potholes and better plan road works.

3. Economic and social growth

Transport

One of the most successful and prolific areas where open data has gone into mass public use has been through the multitude of transport information apps that allow citizens to better plan their rail, tube or bus travel, find a parking space, or evade road works, or which through Google Now even help predict planning for journeys you are about to take. The Deloitte report for Stephan Shakespeare’s independent review of Public Sector Information examined transport as one of the main case studies in its market assessment and found there had been over 4 million downloads of apps using transport data in London alone. Beyond the services delivered directly to the public, companies such as Placr are developing a thriving business aggregating transport data from a variety of sources and providing this as a service for app developers and organisations including Transport for London.

Business-to-business services

Tech-aware companies are increasingly focused on understanding how they can use data generated by their own business alongside purchased data and open data to improve their competitive advantage, reduce costs and better target potential customers. McKinsey has identified the value of so-called ‘big data’ to improve operating margins by more than 60 per cent. Companies such as Experian QAS and Deloitte Analytics provide data consultancy services to other companies, in part based on open data. UK tech start-ups like Scraperwiki are providing a capability to extract openly available data from the internet for business use, while Swirrl provide services for those wanting to publish and benefit from better linked data, from music industry catalogues to public sector clients. Panjiva extends the potential business benefits of (currently non-UK) customs open data to enable non-tech SMEs wanting to find an easy way to import or export goods to find potential partners on the other side of the world. In recent months we are even starting to see a number of private companies such as Telefonica release their own data as open data to drive research and development, and organisations like Virgin Media and Which? become members of the Open Data Institute.

Other uses

Part of the wonder of open data is that it can be used in ways that defy prediction or overly neat categorisation by governments. Quirky or niche uses of open data include Magic Seaweed, a forecasting site for UK surfers to track down the best waves; a development team at the Ordnance Survey using mapping open data to create a map of Great Britain in the popular Minecraft video game; Mission Explore a real-world based family game where you undertake missions and collect rewards and Hills are Evil a smartphone app to help mobility scooter users in notoriously hilly Bristol to calculate a route without harsh inclines or cobblestones. The Open Data Institute has also curated an art display of ‘data as culture’ featuring among others The Obelisk (2012) by Fabio Lattanzi Antinori that takes data from news websites and changes the artwork from opaque to transparent dependent on the amount of negative coverage.