Open Data Let’s Just Do It

November 3, 2014 8:00 pm PST | Effective Governing

Editor’s Note: This article was written by Emer Coleman, Director of Business Development at TransportAPI and Founder of DSRPTN.

Earlier this year, I wrote a blog called City As A Platform – Stripping Out Complexity and Making Things Happen that questioned the speed of data release at local authority level in the UK. In that blog, I referred to the role of large Systems Integrators in the ecosystem, which is something I returned to in this talk for a recent Making a Difference with Data event in Birmingham.

For those of us involved in the open data movement, it’s easy to feel like open data should be a no-brainer for organisations; after all, it’s seven years since the first articulation of the principles of open data and five years since the establishment of the London Datastore and Data.gov.uk.

In those days, the ROI of open data was unproven. Today, examples abound of open data companies that have emerged to exploit the value of open data, many of which have been supported by the Open Data Institute, which this week will host their exciting and much anticipated annual Open Data Summit. A recent Deloitte study estimated the value of open data to consumers, businesses, and the public sector in 2011 and 2012 at approximately £1.8 billion, suggesting this as a mid-point estimate with higher values estimated up to £2.2billion. The figures for my own industry in transport data are eye watering, with the finding that using live data from Transport for London in apps can save users time to the economic value of between £15 million and £58 million pa.

And yet, even though the ROI is emerging strongly in the UK, we are still not moving as quickly as we should. Only a small minority of local authorities in the UK have open data platforms and strong engagement with their developer communities. So, why is that and what are the barriers to more speedy implementation?

The answer to that question can be found by applying a wide focus lens to the problem, zooming out from the open data movement itself, and looking closely at the markets into which open data companies are trying to sell their products and services. In the public sector, there is a huge market opportunity at local government level, but to date, our emergent open data companies are struggling to make inroads. To understand why this is, open data advocates must comprehend the nature of bureaucracies and the structure of local government as currently constituted. 

Broadly, these structures mirror those of large, traditional organisations (with the added complexity of a political environment), characterised by what the Harvard Business Review describe as Traditional Leadership models, which they contrast with Open Leadership as follows:

Traditional Leadership

  • Spends limited time thinking about how to be authentic and transparent
  • Sets a strategy and commands control through the leadership chain
  • Uses communications to message the vision and strategy
  • Engages primarily in the executive suite
  • Controls information tightly for fear of leakage

Open Leadership

  • Actively manages authenticity and transparency to form relationships
  • Sets a strategy and engenders commitment with a common shared vision
  • Uses networks to spread the vision and strategy
  • Engages at all levels, outside as well as inside the organisation
  • Develops a culture of trusted information sharing

If you are working with or are interested in open data, then you will probably recognise open leadership from the great work that has been done at central government level in the UK by Government Digital Service. This recent talk by Tom Loosemore at Code for America articulates the GDS journey very well and he nails it with the title: Digital Government – Not Complicated – Just Hard.

For those in the open data movement, all of the advantages that are apparent from opening data seem impossible for local government to ignore, improved citizen experiences, cost reduction, third party innovation, but that presumes local government operate with an open leadership model which, sadly, they don’t. For many officers and senior officials in local government, “open” means “there be dragons” and it’s not likely that risk aversion in local government is going away any time soon.

But more broadly, the problem is also a result of the outsourcing of many IT functions in local government. Many local authorities have long standing contractual arrangements in place with large system integrators. Many of these contracts were put in place before the advent of big data and prior to the technological explosion that now allows us to manipulate and reuse that data in ways that could not have been thought of before. So our open data companies are trying to sell light weight agile products and services which will often need to be integrated into back office systems which is where the difficulties start.

IT functions such as they exist in local government will be the terrain of the IT department which largely exist in silos. The model of a CTO (and I’ve yet to see that as a job title in local government) sitting across the whole of the business is not one that has been adopted in local government. This is a model described by Harvard Business Review as one where the CTO oversees the transformation of every business process including how you “sell, market, communicate, collaborate and innovate”. While there are some very good people working in IT at local government level, the integration of open data solutions will involve change process requests to their IT suppliers and this is where a proposition that might cost £50,000 a year becomes one that costs £500,000 a year to integrate into legacy systems. So the problem is one of an ecosystem that is not just local government itself but the vendors and suppliers with whom they have existing contractual arrangements. It’s the hidden hand of the vendors that I think the open data community don’t pay enough attention to. 

Most of these vendors are members of TeckUK, and I’ve had interesting conversations with their CEO Julian David in the past, but it needs a collective effort something akin to what Julie Meyer from Ariadne Capital suggests when she says David and Goliath must dance together. In other words, we need to find a way to begin a conversation between open data companies, local government, and their vendor ecosystem. 

I know if you are involved in running a small business you might think you don’t have time to lobby, but for many in the open data community in the UK, in the early years, without their engagement with government the open data movement would simply not have happened and their companies would never have emerged. Entrepreneur Chris Taggart is a great example in the UK of someone who poured a lot of his time and energy into engaging government to open data, which allowed him to build the influential Open Corporates, the largest open database of the corporate world. Chris was a collaborator of mine in the London Datastore (along with many others), and even though the London Datastore was a policy initiative of the Mayor of London, it would not have happened without the collaboration of the open data community. 

So I’m making a call on the eve of the Open Data Summit for the new players in the open data movement to step forward and take up the baton—this time focusing on the large vendor ecosystem rather than on government. It’s easy to be complacent and think that the hard work is done, but in truth, its only beginning. The large vendor players have established relationships with local government in the UK. Increasing their understanding and knowledge of open data is crucial. Just as with digital everywhere, business models are under threat, so the open data community needs to understand the current incumbents better demonstrating the value that innovation can add to the overall ecosystem. 

To start the process, I might propose that more established open data software solution providers, like Socrata, that understand the local and national government landscape and how that ties into open data on a global scale, begin by hosting a high-level event to convene all of the software and systems integrators together. This could be a strategic, fringe event to next year’s ODI Summit, where both solution providers can dance together. Even better, let’s invite UK local government to the party and have all the key players in the room to let the innovation unfold.  This would be the best way to clear the next hurdle in the open data journey and get us to “Open Data 2.0.”


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