Open Data

Luke Carter

When Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989, his vision was for information to be shared easily across the internet. His decision to make the underlying code available on a royalty-free basis, forever, stimulated unprecedented innovation and collaboration around the world. The Web facilitated co-operation and openness as it had never been seen before between individuals, communities, businesses and governments.

Twenty-three years later, Berners-Lee set up the Open Data Institute (ODI) with artificial intelligence and data science expert Sir Nigel Shadbolt to promote the value of making data open to help bring about knowledge for everyone. At the ODI, we see the growing open data movement as a brilliant example of communities around the world learning to work together.

Open data is data that is licensed by organisations, businesses and individuals for anyone to access, use and share. People everywhere are realising the value of open data: publishing it, using it, reusing it and combining it to find innovative solutions to social, economic and environmental challenges. Governments are, in turn, waking up to the importance of their roles in helping to build robust data infrastructure to support this innovation, deliver digital transformation and ultimately grow their economies.

Open data can bring individuals and organisations together in a co-operative, collaborative process to solve problems. We see this in hackathons, challenge series and humanitarian data mapping groups everywhere. 

At the ODI, we have seen many applications come from our Open Data Challenge Series, run in collaboration with UK innovation charity, Nesta. The series incentivises teams to use open data to address social challenges—from helping people eat more healthily to reducing crime—with cash prizes for the best innovative and sustainable solutions.

One winning innovation, Community Energy Manager, is built on co-operative principles. It offers a tool to help community groups support their local area by brokering energy efficiency improvements and generating savings for their community, helping to reduce carbon emissions, fuel bills and fuel poverty.

There have also been countless multi-sector initiatives developing recently around healthcare and medical research data. 

Pricing pressures, increasing complexity and costs in research and development, along with growing global competition, are among the challenges facing the pharmaceutical sector. In order to overcome them, the relatively closed environment of previous years is giving way to a much more collaborative, distributed and open approach.

As more research bodies see the benefits of open-source drug development and ‘real-world data’, medicines are being enhanced thanks to improved insights around drugs’ effectiveness. ‘Real-world data’ in this context describes data collected outside traditional clinical trials. It includes data from electronic medical records and observational studies, along with data that is not directly related to drugs, such as population surveys and national statistics. 

The more this real-world data is made open by the various groups that produce it, such as the UK’s Office for National Statistics, the more it can be used by pharma companies to better understand the effectiveness of the drugs they bring to market. 

As pioneers in promoting open innovation in medicine, Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV) have established a product development partnership, catalysing the discovery, development and delivery of new medicines to treat and protect people against malaria. 

Keen to address the 50 or so diseases that have a major impact on the health of children throughout the world, MMV wanted to share their results and new compounds with others. In facilitating this open source drug development, MMV launched four new antimalarial drugs and developed a ‘malaria box’ of 400 open source antimalarial compounds freely available to anyone wishing to develop new drugs for these or other diseases. By reducing barriers to entry this has helped stimulate new research in Africa. 

Collaborative and open initiatives are also gathering pace in helping to bridge gaps in mental health awareness and provision. In the UK, mental health issues affect one in four people and cost the economy about £70bn each year. They are also the cause of 40% of new disability benefit claims each year—the highest recorded in Europe—according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Inspired by its work on an OpenHub knowledge platform for the mental health charity Mind, the digital consultancy M/A wanted to try to solve this problem by developing a data-driven solution. With funding and support from the ODI, M/A developed Plexus—a web application and knowledge base for people with mental health conditions to help them access support, find routes back into employment and manage their conditions at work. 

Plexus is the first application of its kind to pool data made available by different organisations and provide users with a an accessible view of mental health standards and services in their areas, including support networks, employer responsibilities, legal aid and job opportunities. It uses a combination of data on health care services from Mind’s OpenHub platform and NHS Choices, data on employee rights from GOV.UK and Citizens Advice, and data on job opportunities and advice from National Careers Service.

As well as solving social and environmental problems, it is possible to measure the economic benefits of these collaborations between service users, open data providers, data scientists, facilitators and startups.

PwC predicts the Open Data Challenge Series programme will result in a potential 10 times return (£10 for every £1 invested over three years), generating up to £10.8m for the UK economy. Capgemini found that almost 25,000 jobs directly attributed to open data will be created in the EU 28+ between 2016 and 2020. 

As more organisations and sectors go open, innovations will keep emerging. Providing we have the strong data infrastructure we need for open innovation to prosper, we will continue to realise the social, economic and environmental benefits that open data can facilitate.

Anna Scott is a writer and Editor at the Open Data Institute.

PwC predicts the Open Data Challenge Series programme will result in a potential 10 times return (£10 for every £1 invested over three years), generating up to £10.8m for the UK economy. Capgemini found that almost 25,000 jobs directly attributed to open data will be created in the EU 28+ between 2016 and 2020.


Info & Credits

Published in STIR magazine no.12, Winter 2016

Written by Anna Scott

Illustration by Luke CArter