July 19, 2017

Gaining Insight From Open Data

5 minute read

Open data forms a vital role in supplying the kind of factual information that keeps us up to date with the state of the world around us, informing everything from government policy to commercial enterprise.

However, despite the readily accessible open data out there, many businesses may be unaware of the marketable opportunities it presents. We’ve taken a closer look at open data, how it relates to other open data movements and some examples of organisations who use and produce open data to drive business.

What is open data?

According to the Open Data Institute (ODI) “for data to be considered ‘open’, it must be published in an accessible format, with a licence that permits anyone to access, use and share it” (theodi.org).

The open movement

The Open Data Handbook defines the open movement as one which “seeks to work towards solutions of many of the world’s most pressing problems in a spirit of transparency, collaboration, re-use and free access” (opendatahandbook.org). For example, open hardware features freely available design information, such as schematics, mechanical drawings and HDL source code, so that the hardware in question can be reproduced. Likewise, open source software is customisable, with accessible source code that can be scrutinised, altered and repurposed, unlike that of proprietary software.

Perhaps most interesting is the open government doctrine, which states that citizens should have access to government documents and related actions in order to understand its policies and decisions. The majority of this data collected and used by the government is by law, public data, so could also be classified as open data. This open government data is enormously beneficial in terms of its economic and wider societal value. For example, it increases government accountability by allowing us to see how tax money is spent, fuels innovation by enabling the creation of information-based services and products and reduces administrative resources for government services by making useful information readily available.

While this is the aim of open government, the flow of information relating to how political parties use open data for their needs is not so clear cut. Earlier this month, we published a blog on Big Data and UK Politics, in which we explored the indistinct and potentially unethical ways political campaigners are now using openly available personal data, such as that on social media networks, to target key groups of voters.

Now subject to an official investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), this use of open data for political campaigning may eventually be prohibited in the UK, which shows just how influential open data has become. Across the pond, using open data for political ends is perfectly legal, and Barack Obama famously did so during his re-election campaign in 2012. However, despite championing the open data movement and launching the Open Government Initiative during his first term in office, Obama and his team went on to refuse to publish the source code of their election-winning software, despite the fact that it was based on open data in the first place.

Politicians aside, there are many different types of organisations using open data here in the UK. The ODI reports that the UK is ranked number one of 86 countries for its use of open data. This rating system is known as the Open Data Barometer, and “measures a country’s readiness to secure benefits from open data, its publication of key datasets and evidence of emerging impacts from open government data” (odi.org).

How can open data be used for optimisation?

In a huge variety of ways. Many companies make use of public sector, population and environmental data, published by government departments and agencies, public bodies and local authorities.

Mapping is a popular area for public sector open data, in fact more UK companies use geospatial data from Ordnance Survey (OS) than any other resource. OS provides a set of free digital products, all with open source code that allows them to be repurposed, such as maps, addresses and postcode data, political boundaries, and road and waterway networks. These include the OS OpenSpace API, which enables you to embed and embellish detailed and automatically updated maps on a website or app. Websites and mobile applications built by private developers using OS OpenData include iCoast, UK Map App and GB Maps Offline.

By combining original datasets from corporate data providers with diverse, geospatial datasets (such as open government data and open science data), users can uncover greater insights and correlations across a range of societal trends. One company using open data in this way to innovate products and services is Arup, the UK-based international engineering consultancy that worked on the concrete shell of the Sydney Opera House. Arup assists in the development and design of smart cities, using open data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) to inform their services of urban planning, design strategy and environmental assessments. The company has also used open data to create a unique natural disaster warning system, demonstrating how this data can be used to generate predictive modelling applications. Known as The Hazard Owl, the system uses real-time environmental hazard data from public feeds to predict and forewarn clients of impending natural events so action can be taken to minimise the risk of damage.

By identifying and meeting a need for information in this way, open data can also help organisations find a niche in their industry. Award-winning start-up Foodtrade has used open data from the Food Standards Agency to create an informative allergen compliance tool, compiling this publicly available data in one easy to navigate application. Caterers and restaurant managers can quickly check whether their menus conform to official allergen regulations, which positions Foodtrade as the go-to provider of this invaluable information. The data may have been available before, but Foodtrade has successfully repackaged and re-purposed it in a way that suits the demands of the catering trade.

As well as informing specific data-led applications, open data can also be applied to deepen a business’s understanding of their market share and guide marketing decisions, although many organisations may not realise its potential. Marketers have become adept at combining different data sets, such as market research, competitor activity and customer feedback, to gain the insights that can hone their campaigns, but open data is still relatively unmined in this regard.

In 2016, global technology giant IBM bought The Weather Company for the influence its predictive weather data could bring to their marketing plans, demonstrating just how powerful this sort of data can be at interpreting and pre-empting consumer behaviour. By merging past weather activity, sales data and weather forecasting, a company can prepare marketing communications, pricing strategies and specific product recommendations to suit the weather on the horizon in any number of target locations. For example, rain will often result in a boost to sales, but by correlating historic sales and weather data we can shed light on the type of products consumers buy on rainy days, as well as how they buy them.

In last week’s blog, we published a list of our favourite open data sources and datasets across the UK, EU and worldwide. Our selection represents just a fraction of the open data available to any organisation with the ingenuity to turn it into actionable insight.

As the commercial sphere begins to recognise its economic significance, we can show you how your business could be capitalising on open data to enhance and inform your customer offering. Contact us today to find out more.

Posted by Christian Stilwell


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Gaining Insight From Open Data