Measuring Impact over Size: Introducing The Open Data Institute

Written by Philippe Roesle, Embassy of Switzerland in the United Kingdom

The availability and accessibility of data is by no means an end-point; in fact, it is only the beginning. If data strives to offer an added value to prospective end-users, it must be sorted, analysed, visualised and fully interpreted. The availability of various types of data constitutes a very fertile playing field for nascent startup companies. In order to support the exploitation of big and open data, the UK’s national innovation agency, Innovate UK (together with the Omidyar Network), has invested in an interesting non-profit organisation: the Open Data Institute (ODI). Unique in many ways, the ODI not only advocates the release of more public and private sector data as open datasets, it also actively supports the creation of value with a view to achieve social, environmental, and economic impact. For this, the ODI has built a centre of excellence for open data in the fields of research, learning, advocacy, consulting, and startup incubation.

Big data is a catch-all term commonly used to describe extremely large volumes of data characterised by a velocity of production and complexity of sources. In a nutshell, size is all that matters. Beyond this, big data remains a relatively loose term with few empirical parameters. The ODI attempts to understand data in more nuanced ways, defining it by accessibility rather than just its size. Accordingly, the ODI defines the data spectrum as such:

  • Data can be closed – it can only be accessed by its subject, holder or owner (for example security-related and personal information).
  • Data can be shared by a pre-defined group with certain restricting criteria regarding usage and access (for example information related to health).
  • Data can be open. Open data can be accessed, used and shared commercially or non-commercially by anyone. It is important to note that not all freely accessible data is necessarily open data. For example, Twitter feeds can be accessed any time, but the data cannot be reused without obtaining a specific license. Open data, by contrast, is published under a licence with explicit permission to reuse, share and modify. Open data is largely made available by governments, but businesses and non-government organisations are equally (and increasingly) publishing and licencing open data.

In 2013, the UK topped the Open Data Barometer, a ranking set-up by the World Wide Web Foundation analysing individual countries’ progress in making open data available. While not all open data is necessarily “big data”, as Léonard Mouny highlights in his blog contribution, they are linked concepts. William Gerry and Orsola de Marco from the ODI not only agree, but hope to move the discussion about data into a more useful direction. What matters to the ODI is not really whether data sets are big or not, but what they can achieve. At the ODI, social, environmental and economic impact is the central parameter when assessing the usefulness of data – size is secondary.

Due to the UK’s leading status in the domain of dealing with open data, this brief insight into the ODI will illustrate its pioneering work in the field of open data, particularly in relation to making a business case for open data. Like Switzerland’s, the centre of excellence in London advocates the release of open data by public organisations, but it also goes several steps further.

The Open Data Institute (ODI)

The ODI was founded in 2012 by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, known for inventing the World Wide Web at CERN, and Sir Nigel Shadbolt, Professorial Research Fellow in Computer Science at the University of Oxford. From health and life sciences to education, transport, and spending data, the UK government is releasing more data than ever before. The most prominent example is, where raw data is made available to help people understand how the government works and how policies are made. As a response to such developments, the ODI fosters collaboration between the UK’s leading businesses and entrepreneurs, universities and researchers, government and civil society, to unlock enterprise and social value from such vast amounts of open government data. It is also actively encouraging the release of open data from the private sector. The ODI builds awareness for the datasets which such institutions might hold and its potential value in licensing it and making it available for researchers and innovators. International Swiss companies are already involved with the ODI: Syngenta is working with the ODI to open up a range of its data with a view to enabling farmers increase productivity and sustainability, and to enhance their livelihoods. Similarly, Hoffmann-La Roche has joined the ODI’s membership programme and argued for the value of opening up real-world data in pharma R&D.

Open data has huge potential. The Shakespeare review, conducted by the UK Data Strategy Board, values the economic and social value generated by UK public sector data at £6.8bn per year. To illustrate this with just one example, the time saved as a result of access to real time travel data from Transport for London is valued already at £15-58m. EU-wide, a 2011 review claims that the EU market for public sector data would grow to €40bn per year. And on a global scale, accordingly to McKinsey, a global market powered by open data would create an additional $3tn to $5tn. Accordingly, on an economic level, the ODI aims to help researchers and startups to exploit open data for commercial means, but it equally strives to foster social value and environmental efficiencies. As a non for profit private company limited by guarantee, the ODI is supported on its mission by £10 million over 5 years from Innovate UK and must look to raise further funds. The ODI’s services include: training, learning and best-practice in open data technology; its aforementioned advocacy work in both private and public organisations; and a startup programme for companies working with open data.

ODI Startup Programme – Case Studies

As more open data is released, businesses are using it to grow. The ODI enables companies in its startup programme to develop innovative new products and services. In the words of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the real achievement of the ODI is when “the linking starts to happen” between newly released data sets, that is, when open datasets are combined and made accessible so as to create new insights and commercial value. As Gavin Starks, the ODI’s CEO, put it, “we really see data as infrastructure. The important question is, what data is coming, how it can be linked with other information? What impact will it create? Where do the efficiencies become revealed in this data?”

The ODI’s startup programme enables early stage companies from different backgrounds and sectors to come together to explore and learn more about both open data technology and commercial opportunities of licensed and freely accessible data. Startups are selected by annual open competitions and successful applicants receive access to technical support, mentoring, networking opportunities and business consulting. The 25 startups that have been accepted into the ODI Startup Programme have used open data to build businesses around government procurement, health savings, smart cities, energy efficiency, 3D-Printing and supporting disabled communities. They have attracted clients from both the public and private sectors, and, between them, generated £8m in sales and investment and employed over 110 people.

Big data startup Mastodon C, for example, was one the first companies incubated at the ODI. In collaboration with Open Health Care UK (a consortium of NHS doctors and technologists dedicated to improving patient care by opening up health data), they examined a vast open data set: 37 million rows of data which capture the prescriptions written by every family doctor in England in 2011-2012. They soon focused on regional prescription-patterns of statins, cholesterol-lowering drugs intended to reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Statins are expensive, but generic versions are up to 20 times cheaper. NHS guidelines suggest that doctors must prescribe generic products, barring any clinical reasons. Nevertheless, Mastodon C’s data-crunching revealed strong regional discrepancies in prescriptions – a gap which cannot be explained solely on the basis of clinical grounds. Accordingly, the NHS’ drug bill could have potentially been a couple of hundred million lower. Mastodon C does not aim to expose practitioners; instead the startup hopes to raise awareness of alternatives. “As a clinician,” Sir Bruce Keogh, medical director of the NHS, told the ODI at the time the findings were revealed, “it’s quite easy to think you’re doing the same as everybody else. It’s not until you see the data that you know whether you are or you aren’t.” Since their initial work, Mastodon C has repeated the exercise for other drugs.

Demand Logic, by contrast, has looked at open data from the private sector in order to tackle the waste of energy in commercial buildings. Its web-based real-time dashboard system monitors the performance of buildings against environmental aims. In a typical commercial building 60 – 80% of energy is consumed by heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems. The Demand Logic system can monitor up to 20,000 data points. This typically involves sensors for temperatures, humidity, pressure, and air quality. Each data point either affects or reflects the performance of the building services and can be checked every few seconds. Energy wastage in London’s commercial properties can be highly localised, often depending on individual rooms. Demand Logic can provide estimates of energy and costs associated with any component in the building without expensive sub-metering. In the future, the company also hopes to include open weather data into their analyses, providing even more focused insights into a building’s energy efficiency.

For King’s College London, Demand Logic ran a ‘virtual metering’ project. KCL’s three campuses and approximately 100 buildings generate a vast amount of data, but analysing and turning this into applicable smart-data, proved a real challenge. In the course of the project, Demand Logic tracked 1500 plant items and monitored 100,000 sensors and devices. They identified energy savings of £390,000 per year and carbon savings of 2500 tonnes. Saving potential was largely found in highlighting conflicting ‘set points’ (temperature settings in open plan offices, both heating and cooling the same space) and by monitoring hundreds of ceiling-mounted air-conditioning outlets (some of which were running all day in the middle of winter). Demand Logic’s example reveals that when made available to innovative startups, open data can have very tangible commercial benefits for the private sector.

International Outlook and Opportunities

The ODI is also working to spread its message internationally. In Burkina Faso, Tanzania and Macedonia the ODI runs numerous projects to introduce open data into the public policy process and increase government efficiency. Furthermore, 21 ODI Nodes from Sheffield to Seoul have adopted the ODI charter, committing to support the business case for the openness of public and private sector data. The Nodes can build on their local expertise to develop and deliver training, to build open data infrastructure, to connect people and businesses through membership and events, and to advance the adoption of standards, tools and processes.

Opportunities are also aplenty for Swiss entrepreneurs and startups working with data, seeking to immerse themselves into the ODI’s network and incubation programmes. The ODI Startup Programme’s application process is open to international startups (though presence in London during the programme is strongly encouraged). Startups already exploring data, or those interested in exploring the business potential of open data, are welcome to apply. Alternatively, the ODI is in the consortium of a Europe-wide programme to support open data businesses. The Open Data Incubator for Europe, a project funded by the EU’s Horizon2020 programme, is looking to support European startups in building sustainable businesses using open data. Swiss startups active in the field are welcome to apply. Applications are on a rolling basis and every successful startup receives up to €100’000 equity-free funding.

Startups, governments and established businesses are increasingly drawing on open data to shape their society, environment, and economy. The ODI is active on many fronts: in advocacy, learning and, perhaps most importantly, in fostering future businesses who will add value to the data. It is indeed not the size of data that matters, but the impact entrepreneurs and businesses can achieve with it.


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