Knowledge for Everyone: The Open Data Institute

June 12, 2014 11:24 am PDT | Effective Governing

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of Open Innovation magazine.

If you ever get the opportunity to visit the Open Data Institute (ODI) in London, stop by the vending machine. While you might be tempted by the potato chips and other snacks, don’t bother searching your pockets for spare change. This vending machine, created by Ellie Harrison in 2009, scans BBC news and is programmed to dole out snacks if, and only if, its search function picks up a keyword related to the recession. “You can’t buy a snack from the machine. You have to wait until the recession gets worse,” says Gavin Starks, founding CEO of the Open Data Institute. “We had the budget announcements recently and it dumped its entire contents to the floor,” he chuckles.

By Ellie Harrison
By Ellie Harrison

The ODI was founded by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt and exists, in part, to explore the different relationships we can have with data. In the case of the vending machine, that relationship manifests in a very physical way. According to the website, the ODI is “catalysing the evolution of open data culture to create economic, environmental, and social value. It helps unlock supply, generates demand, creates and disseminates knowledge to address local and global issues.” And truly, the ODI has established itself as a force to be reckoned with. “We are in a unique moment in history,” says Starks. “You’ve got a number of different pieces coming together, from top-level political support driving a data agenda, including the G8 Open Data Charter signing, Open Government Partnership, and initiatives emerging around the world, plus interest from companies who want to produce or consume open data. You have interest from research communities who have been sharing data for years, and the fusion of that interest with grassroots organizations that have been setting the scene for open data culture for the last 10 to 15 years,” he continues. “It’s really an exciting time to be coordinating and acting as a catalyst for open data culture.”

The main idea driving the mission of the ODI is that open data belongs to the citizens of the world. To fulfill this mission, the ODI gathers world-class experts to collaborate and innovate on new ideas and trains its teams to mentor anyone who wants to learn more about and engage with open data. For Starks, his commitment to open data culture began back in 1993, in one of his first paid research gigs. “I reviewed all of the audio software on the web,” he remembers. “Going back quite a long way, I’ve been very involved with getting information shared freely on the web.” From his time at Godrell Bank, where he shipped massive amounts of data for scientific research, to his participation in setting up Virgin Media, Starks has been involved in data in some shape or form for more than 20 years. As CEO of the ODI, Starks hopes to continue the good work of bringing open data to the entire world.

Noteworthy Beginnings

In his letter in the 2013 FirstYearBook, Starks credits his exceptional team for the organization’s remarkable first year. “Transparency as a public good is an excellent foundation. We have demonstrated potential for improved public-sector efficiency and economic growth. Over 40 companies have joined as members, initiating projects and opening up their own data. [Our team has] welcomed over 3,000 people from 30 countries to our Shoreditch offices. Over 130 people from 11 countries took our courses. We reached over 100,000 people online.” Of course, all great leaders look back not only at success, but also at lessons learned along the way. Starks is no different. The level of inbound interest in 2013 surprised him. “It was far and above what we expected,” he says.  “Based on that interest, we could have set up offices around the world but we didn’t. We said, ‘Let’s create an international franchise to amplify what’s already there.’ The organizational design of that franchise was done entirely in the open. We collaborated on open legal documents with the potential franchise partners to develop the framework itself.” The outcome of this endeavor? They created 13 ODI nodes in nine countries in just three months.

Starks attributes the international interest to open data itself, saying, “I think this interest is part of a general transition to open data culture. When this momentum builds from multiple dimensions, it signifies that we are approaching a tipping point where ‘open by default’ will, in fact, become the default. We still have a really long way to go in getting there and there’s actually a huge amount of behavior change and institutional procedures that have to be adapted, but momentum is building. If the mid-90s web was the Web of Documents, we are seeing it transition to become a Web of Data,” he explains.

Part of the ODI’s formula for success relies on it partnering with other organizations that are looking to innovate in the new emerging open data space. The ODI partners with companies looking to consume open data as part of their business or looking to produce open data. Starks remarks on the systemic shift taking place regarding open data and business. “Traditionally, when businesses find value, they believe that protecting that value means not sharing information. Actually, there are so many examples where opening that information leads to a stronger business because you develop a larger ecosystem of providers around you, which allows you improve the quality of your products and services. The ODI looks for companies that understand that perspective and want to work out how to develop business models around that, companies that seek to open up information and learn what systems and processes need to be put in place to make that happen,” he says. All the programs done at the ODI are collaborative and all the outputs are open. “In working with partners, we try to identify what their needs are. In some cases we provide training, in other cases we provide joint research programs, and in others, it’s been a sponsor relationship to help raise visibility on their own activities,” says Starks. These partnerships help expand and transform open data culture. One ODI partner, Telefonica has done a trial opening up some footfall data from their mobile network. This is all anonymous data; personal data is not open without informed consent. “This project helped the developer community engage with the information and develop a prototype,” says Starks. “It engages communities outside the organization as well.” With a successful first year under his belt, Starks looks forward to increasing the impact of the ODI in 2014.

The Road Forward

Starks is keen to extend and build upon the success of the ODI’s first year. 2014 is about scaling that success. A large part of this plan includes collaborating with the different ODI nodes in a research and development theme around Smart Cities. This is a common theme for development and addresses a common set of issues. Starks also hopes that 2014 will see great legislative strides in the open data movement. “We hope to see the policy rhetoric put into action. We don’t underestimate the distance we must travel to manifest this into day-to-day operations. One of the key outputs for us is to tell powerful, evidence-based stories. We’ve set ourselves a target of creating a new story every three months to bring this space to life and ensure everyone can understand the potential applications for open data, not just as a technology solution, but how it can influence and affect your day-to-day life,” Starks explains.

Starks is attuned to the influence of open data culture. He remembers the web world of the late nineties. There were a large number of organizations developing multidimensional websites to see who could gain traction. He envisions a similar cycle of innovation in the world of open data. “Over the next decade, we’ll see the emergence of really innovative companies. We will see these companies and other organizations and people doing things we never envisioned,” he says. “It’s going to be a period of great excitement, with more stormy days where the political wheel gets lost in the weeds on certain areas but then will get picked up again. Looking over a long horizon, I see this emerging on the same scale as the web,” Starks predicts. No matter what happens on the road to a more transparent world, Starks knows one thing for sure. “We have a responsibility to make open data easier and to demonstrate its value with stories of how open data can be cheaper, more accurate, and generate additional benefits. It is up to us, and all who are passionate about the possibilities of open data, to tell these stories.” 


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