The Open Data Institute: The time for data-driven innovation is now

James Vincent
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  • Last updated: Wednesday, 19 December 2012 at 6:58 pm
data 300x225 The Open Data Institute: The time for data driven innovation is now

(Getty Images)

Officially launched on 4 of December the Open Data Institute (ODI) is an independent, non-profit and non-partisan company that aims to become the UK’s premier academy of big data.

Considering the current hype surrounding terms such as ‘big data’, there are some that might view this new initiative with suspicion but the ODI seems part of an understated if confident shift in how the UK is taking advantage of a natural resource of the information age: data.

The project was first conceived by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and the Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southampton Nigel Shadbolt. The pair made a joint statement in The Times, detailing their vision for data-driven innovation and increased government transparency regarding this information.

They describe the main goal of the ODI as “[helping] the public sector to use its own data more effectively,” allowing private companies and public institutions to “develop the capability of UK businesses to exploit open data, fostering a generation of open data entrepreneurs”.

So far these goals seem well-grounded; in terms of both investment and the UK’s current climate of data-access. The ODI is receiving £10m over the next five years from the Technology Strategy Board, a non-departmental public body specialising in tech research and development, and $750,000 over two years from the Omidyar Network (a philanthropic investment firm), whilst recent research by Deloitte has identified a 285 per cent increase in page views at between January 2010 and September 2012.

Of course, page views mean nothing if they aren’t translated into usable services and information, and so the ODI will also serve as a business incubator, helping start-ups to identify the best uses for the UK’s data.

Currently there are four companies within the ODI’s program: OpenCorporates, the ‘open database of the business world’ which has information on 49 million companies collected from publicly-available data; Placr which aims to create a single source for UK transport information, including timetables, departures, and disruptions; Locatable, a search tool for where to live – offering details on anything from commute times to crime rates; and Mastadon C, who describe themselves as ‘agile big data specialists’, helping clients get the most from their current data sets.

The aims of these companies suggest that the ODI’s main benefit to the public will be via the creation of new web-services and apps. An application such as Google Maps offers the most obvious parallel; it started out in the US by collating data from a number of public caches, including the national Census Bureau and the Geological Survey, before transforming this information into a tool that we all take for granted now. With any luck, the companies currently being incubated by the ODI will become similarly indispensable.

As well as the possibility of these future services there have already been tangible benefits coming out of the ODI. Mastadon C – one of the incubated companies – recently collaborated with Ben Goldacre (the writer and doctor known for his Bad Science book and column) and Open Health Care UK (the healthy technology start-up behind the NHS Hack Days), to identify prescriptions savings of over £200m.

Using publicly available prescriptions data from the NHS the team looked in detail at a class of drugs called statins – a type of medicine used in the prevention of cardiovascular problems. They found that although all drugs classed as statins have been found to be equally safe and effective, the NHS was often prescribing the more expensive, branded versions of the drug. The savings in this particular case would have amounted to around £200m, but they represent part of a wider issue in the NHS’s spending on proprietary rather than generic drugs, with previous research from 2010 indicating that this accrues unnecessary spending of over £1 billion a year.

Ben Goldacre said about the project: “We have found potentially huge savings for the NHS here, in a project that cost almost nothing to build, by doing one simple analysis on publicly available data. I’m sure doctors and patients will find it useful to see whether they can save NHS money in their area. But the real joy has been working on a project with that combined the skills of geeks and geeky doctors: I hope others will come and do the same!”

Case studies such as these – cheap, precise with unequivocal benefits – suggest that this initiative has a bright future. Access to data and the contingent issue of personal privacy still remains one of the ideological battlegrounds of the 21st century and the work currently being produced by the ODI offers a pleasing alternative to squabbles over Facebook data, or Wikileaks fanaticism. Of course, these are still important issues but in the public eye they often seem petty or self-righteous; projects like ODI will hopefully make clear just how productive and beneficial big data can be.

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  • Nicholas Tollervey

    Shouldn’t that be MastodonC (and a link wouldn’t go amiss)..?

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