These open data pioneers are making cities smart and workforces diverse

TfL was one of the first organisations to open up its data. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images


The idea of open data – of liberating information for all to learn from – is a worthy ambition. Businesses, however, may struggle to see the commercial gain in providing access to their valued data sets.

Many may start to see the potential, though, when they realise that open data does not necessarily mean free data. As Gavin Starks, CEO at the Open Data Institute (ODI), explains: “Businesses are understandably sceptical about open data but when it can lead to new service that can be charged for, many start to see its power.”

“There are several business models. Insights from open data can be made available for free but then users can also be asked to pay for a service level agreement, if it is critical to them the service is properly maintained. There are also many ‘freemium’ business models out there, where you get some data for free but to get everything you need to pay.”

It is still very early days for open data, and the business opportunities it opens up are only just starting to be uncovered, but Starks suggests that anyone who wants to get an idea of its power takes a look at There are countless private weather sensors, lorry tracking devices and even tags on turtles and sharks that can be accessed for free.

Better cities
One early advocate of the power open data could provide to business is Volker Buscher, director of digital at engineering design consultancy Arup. He realised open data could do a couple of things for his business. The most obvious benefit is a new data analytics business which can be marketed to clients around the globe. The second, which has yet to come to fruition, is a tapping in to the wide array of aforementioned sensors to provide the company with a rich source of data for the environmental impact studies it carries out.

Buscher says: “We’ve been able to offer a whole new service by taking readings from sensors and studies published by professional engineers and environmentalists to launch a new service.”

“We’re doing some very interesting work with the C40 Group which has been set up to understand how ‘mega cities’, such as London and Tokyo, perform. They want to see the impact, say, of adding cycle lanes – what does it do to traffic volumes and pollution levels? It’s been a huge success and we’re hoping to move to real time sensor data on it soon.”

Another example comes with an early flood warning system Arup developed for the authorities in Jedah. Though much of the land is desert, high mountain ranges have recently caused meltwater to flood villages below. With strategically placed weather and water level sensors, combined with open data provided by weather services, authorities are now in a better position to forewarn people of potential flooding.

Smarter journeys
You may have noticed over the past year or two that planning journeys has become a lot easier. Today’s computer booking systems understand how different modes of transport interlink and how delays on one service can impact another. This is thanks to open data and the services it facilitates which to convert openly available transport information in to easy-to-use smart booking systems, such as Transport API. Its business development director, Emer Coleman, explains how the company’s capacity to reconcile multiple data means business is booming for its freemium model.

“We combine open data from around 60 or so providers, clean it up and then make it available for developers to simply include on their websites and apps,” she says.

“Transport for London led the way back in 2010 and ever since, the case for making transport information available is just too compelling. We have a free version, then we have a per hit model once you go over a certain amount of use, and for the corporates we have an enterprise subscription.

“The business is going great and it’s opening up opportunities for others. There’s even a new service called Screach which publishes our data on screens inside pubs so you know if you’ve got time for a drink before your train leaves. It can be a nicer way of waiting for a train than staring at a screen on a cold platform.”

Improving diversity in education and the workplace
Performance in Context (PiC) is a new service which allows employers to add diversity to their work force. It looks at a job or university applicant’s grades and scores them, via an Ordinance Survey map for comparative deprivation in the UK, for how well they have done given their circumstances.

Co-founder Henry Morris believes his company enables people to make fairer judgements and build a more rounded workforce: “Business don’t want to be full of just middle-class white men: they generally realise diversity allows them to reflect their customers and innovate because they’re not just the same people thinking the same thoughts.”

“So we allow an employer, or higher education admissions officer, to benchmark applicants against one another. It means someone from a less privileged background, who did well in comparison to their peers, gets a break and can compete on the same footing as someone who was fortunate enough to go to a school where they were expected to do well.”

PiC’s innovative approach was recently recognised and awarded £50,000 in the Open Data Challenge Series, a competition run by the Open Data Institute and Nesta.

Open data’s early success stories typically come from micro businesses and SMEs because although innovative new services require a lot of know-how and sophisticated database technology, they don’t necessarily demand a huge staff. While large companies begin to discover the benefits of open data, tech-savvy entrepreneurs are devising new services that few would have thought possible.

With the vast amount of data being collected by the four billion devices already connected to the internet of things and the huge reservoirs of information stored by businesses and public bodies, the potential for open data is undoubtedly huge.

Already, the ODI is reporting that 80 countries have vowed to be open with their public data and Starks likens today’s position to the early days of the internet, where businesses would typically build a private “intranet”. Gradually, though, as they realised not all their data needed to be hidden away, they published information on the wider internet as well.

This is one prediction for open data. The crown jewels will always be kept locked up but many data sets will increasingly be made available for businesses to combine and turn into new services to improve cities, to shorten commutes and to improve workforces. And surely, many more possibilities will become evident as more data begins to flow openly.


This article first appeared on The Guardian.