Top 5 Ways Open Data Is Changing Lives

We’ve scoured the news for the most spectacular ways open data is transforming the world right now. Here are our top five picks — do you agree? Tell us your ideas.

Giving the World’s Crisis Workers Vital Information

“How many Ebola beds are available? How many refugees are in Colombia? What’s the level of poverty in Philippines cities? The Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX) can tell you,” reports Dan Griliopoulous in TheGuardian. If you’re an aid worker on the ground, or a relief agency manager trying to get info to your team serving a crisis zone, that information saves time, resources, and ultimately lives.

Griliopoulous explains how a data disarray at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs sparked Sarah Telford, head of the reporting unit at the time, to combine all the data into a single spreadsheet. Half a year later, the spreadsheet had spawned the HDX.

“Telford’s team initially focused on two pilot locations — Colombia and Kenya,” says Griliopoulous. They then expanded to the Ebola crisis, and more recently stepped in to assist aid workers and survivors of the Nepal earthquake. “Core to the project is its openness — anyone can access the data and anyone can submit new sources.”

Transforming the Global Food Supply

The UK, already top-ranked among nations for its innovative, steadfast dedication to open government, has been making the news with its new initiative to make the UK as self-sufficient as possible in food production.

“Virtually all the data Defra [Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs] holds — at least 8,000 sets — will be made freely available,” declares Elizabeth Truss, the UK Environment Secretary. Truss contends that “technology and globalization are forces that should be harnessed to boost productivity within the countryside and food production,” explains Jessica Burt in Food Law.

Truss believes the giant data dump will “transform the world of food and farming” and help enable the UK to become a one-nation economy. Truss, in her speech announcing the plan, explained, “Dealing with emergencies has long been a major responsibility for government,” and that “sometimes that emergency mindset can mean the attitude to nature and food has been to ban, to control, and to certify.”

She aims to reverse the attitude, and “unleash that spirit of enterprise.” As a global trendsetter in open data, where the UK succeeds, other nations will likely follow.

Finding Safe Drinking Water 

From insulin pumps to cochlear implants to water filters, NASA has inspired amazing, life-changing technology. mWater may be NASA’s best contribution yet: In a world where many people struggle daily to find a clean drink, and expend many calories and much sweat transporting water, a former NASA engineer, John Feighery, is using open data to make the task efficient and productive.

mWater grew out of astronauts’ need to safely recycle and test their water. Feighery spotted the opportunity to transfer the simple, low-cost technology to life back on Earth, and teamed with his wife Annie, software engineer Clayton Grassick, and others to create mWater. The technology combines “a global map of water sources backed by an open, scalable and secure database; a cross-platform mobile phone app for recording water sources and reporting test results; and reliable, low-cost water testing kits,” reports Kathleen Hickey in

In partnership with, Hickey notes, the project expanded to mWater Surveyor, a mobile platform that enables organizations on the ground to map and monitor “sites such as water points or sanitation facilities.”

Bringing Communities Together

The Edinburgh City Scrapbook touches the very heart of open data: people. At a time when citizens regularly hear about the perils of not knowing their neighbors, or the social isolation wrought by personal technology, Edinburgh is quietly, gleefully, going ahead and having some fun, using technology and open data to bring its community closer — across the street and across the generations.

The City of Edinburgh Council explains how the scrapbook gives “both local people and anyone around the world” the chance to engage with their community, “by sharing their family, friends, city and holiday photos and personal memories” of Edinburgh on the scrapbook website, Edinburgh Collected.

Edinburgh Councilor Frank Ross, a local open data champion and a co-founder of the scrapbook project, notes the nonprofit Nesta and the Open Data Scotland project ”gave us invaluable help in making this possible.”

Obama’s Police Data Initiative

In the face of repeated news reports — and protests and riots — questioning police use of force, President Obama established the Task Force on 21st Century Policing. “Many of the task force’s recommendations emphasize the opportunity for departments to better use data and technology to build community trust,” notes the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The recommendations gave birth to the Police Data Initiative, which has “mobilized 21 leading jurisdictions across the country to take fast action” on open data. The initiative teams the police departments with technology gurus, data experts, and other specialists to develop and share best practices and technologies to support transparency in policing. Socrata is serving as a technical consultant to cities working on police data transparency, along with nonprofit Code for America.

President Obama kicked off the initiative in Camden, New Jersey, deemed “the country’s most dangerous city” by Along with the other 20 progress-minded cities, Camden has pledged to release “sensitive datasets to the public centered around topics like use of force, vehicle and pedestrian stops, and officer-involved shootings.”


Join Socrata’s webinar on Tuesday, July 21 at 11 a.m. PT / 2 p.m. ET to learn more about the Police Data Initiative, and how to improve public safety with data.