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Big data

Unlocking value from open data

Tim Baker  Global Head of Innovation, Financial & Risk, Thomson Reuters

Dr. Andrew Fletcher  Director, Thomson Reuters Labs™ – London

Tim Baker  Global Head of Innovation, Financial & Risk, Thomson Reuters

Dr. Andrew Fletcher  Director, Thomson Reuters Labs™ – London

Reflecting on a presentation by Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt hosted by Thomson Reuters Labs™ in our London office.

The open data paradox

It sounds paradoxical. How can you create value from something that is free? Or stranger still, how can you create value while simultaneously giving something away? Yet open data – “data or content … anyone is free to use, reuse, and redistribute”– is now a route for both new and established businesses.

Using open data for public good is not new. Florence Nightingale used data from the Crimean War to show that more people were dying from diseases acquired in hospitals than the battlefields, and John Snow was able to show that cholera was a water-borne disease by plotting deaths in London on a map and linking them to water pump locations.

In all cases with open data, despite the immense power of it being freely available for use, investment of time and care is needed to transform it to intelligence.

The spirit of open

Open data, of course, in many ways relies on the open web – and the inclusivity it promotes. Now 25 years old, the world wide web was made available freely by Sir Tim Berners-Lee – its spirit summed up in his tweet during the opening ceremony of London Olympics 2012: “This is for everyone.” The open web enables citizen science projects which use crowdsourcing and community-driven projects such as Wikipedia by harnessing expertise. And by being able to access knowledge freely, inventors can make their ideas a reality.

Anyone can be a scientist. Anyone can be an author. Anyone can be an innovator. The idea of open is powerful. And this spirit was at the heart of creating the Open Data Institute, founded by Nigel and Tim in 2012 as a not-for-profit with funds for five years from UK government. The ODI’s slogan; “Knowledge for Everyone.” But as well as promoting use and adoption of open data for scrutiny and discovery, the ODI is building on the business opportunity of open data.

The new business models

There are many examples and approaches that businesses are using to engage and embrace open data:

Get the data free, sell the insight back.

Open data can and does create commercial opportunities when released by governments. Release of spending data from local governments quickly led to businesses selling business intelligence back to the authority that released it, for example, where they could make savings.

Find the insight and find the opportunity.

The big success story of open data to date has been Climate Corporation. A business built on open data – geological and soil conditions; crop yields; weather data – to create a proposition for the insurance market. Their algorithms and proposition justified the approximately $1 billion Monsanto paid to acquire them.

Give away for free, and build trust.

The new, and growing, peer-to-peer lending network in the UK chose to engage with the Open Data Institute for their “Show Me the Money” report. Ahead of being subject to regulation in 2014, the three biggest lenders made their data available under an open license to be transparent. Giving something away for free built trust and reputation and enabled their complementary business model. Having a clearly linked commercial opportunity is in fact a powerful aid to open data, because it gives confidence to the users in the longevity of that data source.

Harness the crowd, and improve quality of data.

As Wikipedia proved, if the asset itself is valuable enough to people, then the crowd will curate and consistently improve the quality of the content. When the UK released the location of 360,000 bus stops, 17,000 were found to be not where the government thought they were. So, the benefit of enlisting people to curate the data made it more valuable.

Re-sell a high-quality, integrated data source.

Even when data is available at source for free, turning it into a useable form can represent a huge value- add that people are willing to pay for. For example, Thomson Reuters Derwent World Patents Index® (DWPI) includes public documents that have been converted, validated, corrected, abstracted, classified, coded and quality controlled to make a valuable resource that goes far beyond what anyone could access for free.

Making the case to release any data always surfaces those who have concerns. This is particularly acute when personal data could be inferred from the data, for example, in aggregated healthcare records. John Wilbanks of the Consent to Research Project makes a compelling case for a consent-based system that could dramatically change our understanding of disease and its prevention. There can be clear benefits, and in cases there is adequate justification for making data public, e.g., tracking death rates to understand if and how they link to medical treatment.

Security is also important. For example, Marine Traffic lists the location, direction and purpose of every ship – data which can be extremely useful to businesses but which can also be used by pirates to identify targets. So, obscuring data is sometimes justified.

Open data can be used for many purposes, but to reap the rewards of open data we must be prepared to balance caution with a willingness to explore its incredible potential.

About the series

TechVision is a global thought leadership series on emerging technologies and innovation. Talks are held at Thomson Reuters Labs™ – Boston.

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A paraglider flies over the Mediterranean sea near the coastal city of Tel Aviv January 28, 2013.
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