Open data: Strategies for impact

When someone used to talk about “data for good”, chances are they were wondering whether the open data stream they relied on was still going to be available in the future. Similarly, “good with data” meant that experienced data scientists were being sought for a deeply technical project. Both interpretations reflect a state of being rather than of doing: data being around for good; people being good with data.

Important though these considerations are, they miss what should be an obvious and more profound alternative.

Right now, organisations like DataKind™  and Periscopicand many other entrepreneurs, innovators and established social enterprises that use open data, see things differently. They are using these straplines to shake up the status quo, to demonstrate that data-driven businesses can do well by doing good. 

With data, we can change our perception of the world if we can just look in the right places to figure out what’s happening.”

-- Kim Rees, Partner and head of data visualisation, Periscopic

And it’s the confluence of the many national and international open data initiatives, and the growing number of technically able, socially responsible organisations that provide the opportunity for social as well as economic growth. The World Wide Web Foundation now estimates that there are over 370 open data initiatives around the world. Collectively, and through portals such as Quandl and and, these initiatives have made a staggering quantity of data available – in excess of eight million data sets. In addition, several successful and data-rich companies are entering into a new spirit of philanthropy – by donating their data for the public good. There’s no doubt that opening up data signals a new willingness by governments and businesses all over the world to engage with their citizens and customers in a new and more transparent way.

The challenge, though, is ensuring that these popular national and international open data initiatives are cohesive and impactful. And that the plans drawn up by public sector bodies to release specific data sets are based on the potential the data has to achieve a beneficial outcome, not – or, at least, not solely – based on the cost or ease of publication. Despite the best of intentions, only a relatively small proportion of open data sets now available has the latent potential to create significant economic or social impact. In our push to open up data and government, it seems that we may have fallen into the trap of believing the ends are the same as the means; that effect is the same as cause.

So what role could open data play in solving the big issues faced by society? And what open data sets create genuine impact? These are the sixty-four-million-dollar questions.

The contributors to our giant illustration at the OGP Summit were in no doubt that open data should be used for policies with impact. Specifically, they suggested that open data should be used to address health issues and nutrition, youth unemployment, poverty, inequality and global warming.

What role could open data play in solving the big issues faced by society? Ideas and answers to this question and more were submitted to us and illustrated at Deloitte’s stand at the OGP Summit in London, 31 October – 1 November, 2013. View in higher resolution.

Sometimes, the disruption needed in the market only occurs when strategies have a ruthless and singular focus. And that’s what I’d like to see more of: public sector bodies, state and local authorities, national governments and international efforts at the highest levels directed not just at releasing open data to address broad goals of transparency and democratic engagement but also at these deeper societal challenges, where outputs dictate inputs, where cause leads to effect, and where government, business and citizen want and need to come together to deliver data-driven solutions.


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