Open data has the potential to stimulate innovation and improve public services yet many citizens are unaware or indifferent to its impact.

Open data is publicly available data, which anyone can use for any purpose for free. It can be used to solve problems, make better-informed decisions, inspire new ideas, or stimulate economic growth.

Interestingly, the UK government is believed to be leading the world with its open data initiatives. Since its launch at the beginning of 2010, the government’s website has amassed over 14,000 datasets, including information on traffic, deprivation, council expenditures and obesity. The government has also partially funded the Open Data Institute (ODI). Founded by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt, the ODI is an independent, non-profit research & development organisation located in Shoreditch, London, which has been creating open data training programmes, supporting start-ups and businesses, and demonstrating the opportunities of unlocking data since its launch over two years ago.

Meanwhile, cities, governments and international bodies around the globe are looking to open up more of their data. The European Commission has launched a formal tender for a new open data platform, whilst President Obama has signed into law the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 (DATA Act), obliging all federal agencies to reveal their spending data to the public. At a more local level, cities around the world, such as San Francisco, Cape Town and New York, are creating digital portals, so that their citizens can access reams of information about their local area.

So what is all the fuss about?

By making large amounts of data available online, at a very low cost, governments can use open data to stimulate innovation and creativity. It can encourage entrepreneurs, technology companies and individuals to design and develop mobile apps or tools, which can support the citizen. The release of travel information has led to the creation of apps such as London Now, which allows the commuter to stay updated with live bus and tube times, or Walkonomics, which maps the friendliness of streets for pedestrians. 

Public sector information, which can be accessed and analysed by the public, can motivate organisations to improve the provision of their services. In the UK, the release of heart surgery data on the NHS Choices website is arguably making improvements to healthcare delivery, whilst the release of information on school performance across the UK is stimulating competitive between schools and helping parents make better choices about local schools. Information about local areas, such as the crime rate or the number of traffic accidents, can all help to make a more informed citizen who makes improved decisions.

Open data can give citizens a stronger voice on the public services they use and create a channel of dialogue between the citizen and central government or a local authority. An app called Fixmystreet allows UK residents to report any problems in their neighbourhood to their local council. It can also break down the barriers between politician and citizen, teach people about the workings of government, and encourage greater political engagement and collaboration. At a time when confidence in our politicians is at an all-time low, the open data movement couldn’t have come at a better time. By releasing information about the environment or crime, for instance, the government can become increasingly accountable to its citizens. It has the power to expose corruption, aid journalists in their role of holding politicians to account and help the citizen keep on track of government activity.

In its relatively infant form, the open data movement has a long way to go before we will see the many and, perhaps unpredictable, benefits it can offer. As the Minister for the UK Cabinet Office, Francis Maude, aptly said in a speech recently: “Open data is a raw material for innovation and growth. As the industrial revolution was built on steel, so the digital revolution is built on data.”

However, opening up access to data does not in itself guarantee the widely believed benefits that open data promises. Churning out thousands of datasets into a digital portal will be a pointless exercise if no one is interested in using it. The open data movement is getting louder as groups around the globe realise the value in transparency and openness, but it is up to governments, public bodies, community groups, citizens and businesses to nurture its growth, shout out about its benefits and see that it achieves its full potential, whatever that may be.