How open information is benefiting the sport and recreation sector

Open data help cyclists plan safer journeys. Photograph: Ray Tang/REX

If you are familiar with our work at imin, you’ll probably think I’m going to talk about data, and specifically, the concept of open data.

Instead, I’m going to talk about information.

There’s an important difference between data and information: computers need data; humans need information. Think of it this way: information is data put in context. Context is important, as it enables us mere humans to process the “data” around us. Here’s an example: consider “£3.20” as data. You can’t do much with that. What does it mean? What is it for? Is that the buying or selling price, or something else? But “£3.20” sitting above a “Buy Now” button on an Amazon book listing, next to pictures and reviews – suddenly that “£3.20” has become information. Someone (Amazon) has kindly put the data (“£3.20”) in context (purchasing a new book). It’s the same data, but contextualised.

When it comes to technology, it is information (and not just data) that is at the heart of really great customer experiences. When customers have more information, they have a better experience because they can more easily make a choice. Whether that’s a choice about what to buy, where to go, or what to do…it doesn’t matter. You can have all the beautifully designed apps, or thoughtfully architected functionality, but without relevant information lurking just beneath the surface, you are not going to be able to deliver a good customer experience via technology.

Essentially, the customer experience improves as the quality of information increases, and the quality of information increases as more context is put around the data being presented.

The Internet is almost 10,000 days old. In that time, we’ve seen sectors completely transform when they become information-enabled. Think about the last time you Googled something, or ordered takeaway online, or streamed a movie. As Marc Andreessen, Silicon Valley venture capitalist and inventor of one of the first web browsers, once famously said: “software is eating the world“. He is referring to the fact that in almost every sector, technologists, innovators and entrepreneurs are coming together to rapidly develop new customer experiences and services based on the ever increasing speed of product development and the ever decreasing cost of reaching those customers (i.e. via the Internet). The availability and accessibility of information accelerates everything.

Since Google changed how we find information, we’ve seen the emergence of a number of specific search platforms, from holiday booking sites like Expedia to online retailers like Amazon. Why? Because these specialised searches are able to wrap data (often the same data as Google has access to) with very high levels of context, tailored to specific audiences; together meaning they deliver higher quality information for the customer to make their choice (and making a lot of money in the process).

So, information is great. Which begs the question: is our sector information-enabled?

Not yet. But don’t be disheartened. In most sectors that are not yet information-enabled, data is abundant, but context is not, meaning information quality is low (and customer experience is poor). Therefore, in these sectors, the first step is to develop an app or online offering, to create more context around the data. Think about travel data (like flight seats or hotel rooms) – lots of data was available, but inadequate customer experiences prevailed until Expedia and created better experiences by applying more context to that data.

And here’s the exciting bit: our sector is a bit of a phenomenon in this respect, because we’ve started the other way around. From startups to public sector campaigns to global corporations, we already have so many great examples of organisations creating different contexts for different audiences to think about their physical health – such as Public Health England’s OneYou campaign, Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign, and Vitality’s reward programmes. In other words, we have context in abundance. But we are still information poor as we fail to provide the other half of the equation: opportunity data. This is data about the different opportunities for these audiences to be active – activities they can join in with, and active communities they can become a part of. This lack of data prevents us from providing a call to action to these audiences. It’s like an Amazon book listing without the Buy Now button – people are engaged, but they can’t do anything about it.

Amazingly, as a sector we’ve already done the hard part by engaging with these audiences using a multitude of different channels and campaigns. Now is the time to unlock the opportunity data (by making it open) and combine it with these campaigns so that we can deliver the information these audiences need to have a great customer experience; information that enables them to more easily make a choice to be active.

And that’s exactly what’s happening now in London. In partnership with London Sport and supported by the Open Data Institute, we’ve created a campaign called Openactive, dedicated to giving the capital’s tech innovators better access to opportunity data in order to get more Londoners more active. The Openactive community is opening up opportunity data from a broad range of national governing bodies, leisure operators and community clubs, and imin is helping to provide this data to the earliest Pioneers of Openactive, so these tech innovators can create information rich applications that engage their users to find physical activities to participate in. Openactive has received local and national press coverage, and the campaign continues to gather momentum as we start to work with organisations outside of London, such as Active Essex. Openactive is open to all, and we invite the sector to join in to help shape its work and direction. If you’re considering using open data to meet your organisation’s physical activity goals, please get in touch to find out more.

For the sector, it’s time for our information-revolution. It’s time to unleash the potential of hundreds of enthusiastic technologists and entrepreneurs to create innovative ways to engage the population to be active. It’s time to come together to collaborate. And it’s time to embrace the power of open data. Because the revolution is coming, and it will be open.

(This artisle first appeared on Sport+Recreation Alliance blog)