We Don’t All Need to be Geeks, Everyone Just Needs to be Geekier!

At the end of its season of seven challenges to create social good out of open data, Nesta, the charity that encourages and funds innovation, has some interesting insights to share. Perhaps the most significant I heard is that in order to unlock value, you don’t need highly calibrated data scientists, but enthusiasts with deep market knowledge and decent digital skills.

The challenges ran across a broad range of government policy areas and were conducted in conjunction with the Open Data Institute and funded by the BIS government department and Innovate UK agency.  Somewhere between a hackathon and an incubator, the outcome of the challenges is seven new real-life social businesses, not all of them built by data professionals.

With the series ranging from crime and justice, energy and the environment at one end of the spectrum to jobs and food at the other diverse uses of open data uses were tested Nesta and the ODI supported teams to develop products or services using open data for social good. Ed Parkes, Senior Programme Manager for the Open Data Challenge Series admitted his surprised by the outcomes.

“People imagined the kind of applications that would come out of certain data, but were confounded each time.” Given the current market in private housing, it would be to imagine an app to do with the private rental sector, I fact the winner was, a kind of Tinder for social housing tenants who wish to swap their accommodation and can now find a match online.

“People want to know what they’re going to get from the data but until you make it available to the experts it’s impossible to predict where the value will lie”, comments Parkes.  In this way, open data is very much a leap of faith and this can be hard to buy into from potential stakeholders both in the government and the private sector.

Certainly some civil servants struggle with open data, despite its publication being mandated. A European Union Directive in 2003 set a legislative requirement to publish and since then, G8 leaders signed the Open Data Charter on 18 June 2013 to make their governments’ data transparent.

Nonetheless, the current lack of Land Registry Index maps and energy performance certificates are frequently cited as gaps in government data. The open data discussion may be thorny for civil servants in departments that may be required to publish for free what was charged for in the past, acknowledges Parkes.

The conversation gets even more strained when it’s conducted in the private sector, Parkes reports. Six out of the seven open data challenges were in domains where the majority of data is owned by the government. But in the Food sector, there is no public provision, only a private market: Nesta and the ODI tried, in vain, to persuade retailers to share their data.

“Most of the value that is generated by open data accrues to the consumer”, he notes. There is probably an education exercise be done with the supermarkets and corporations to explain the value to their brand of sharing data. Open data may well become part of corporate social responsibility that took off in the 80s.

The Seven Challenges Series has also played a part in quantifying the contribution of open data to the economy. Predictions from the analyst giants McKinsey have been generous, with upwards of $3 trillion forecast for just seven sectors. Albeit on a smaller scale, the Nesta-ODI initiative has created data to help predict the value created from al projects.

“We wanted to create a cadre of case studies that give clear examples of what is created, the benefit, and for whom”.

Open Data Challenge Winners:

Crime and Justice Check That Bike! Allows people wanting to buy a second-hand bike to check whether it has been previously stolen.

  • Databases containing stolen bike details such as police data, national and local registers, manufacturers, insurers;
  • Bing search engine to identify crime hot spots;
  • Freedom of information requests

Energy and environment:  Community Energy Manager, helps community groups identify government schemes, bulk-buy energy and potentially generate their own energy.

  • UK Census data provided by ONS
  • Annual energy consumption data from the Department for Energy and Climate Change
  • Data from the Office of National Statistics and local councils
  • Ordnance Survey open data

Education Skills Route, a personalised service to help young people see how well they could do on courses they might take at local schools or colleges.

  • Pupil level data provided by the DfE (anonymised and aggregated)
  • Individual school data (including value added information and location)
  • Data on wellbeing and salary by occupation

Read the Nesta Open Data Challenge Handbook

Also by Helen Beckett.

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Helen Beckett is the Community Manager of the Business Value Exchange.  She has been a writer and editor for over 20 years and takes a particular interest in the challenges facing the CIO in today’s business climate.

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