Can Data Save Government?

Visualization of BC Annual Metal Shipments from 1858 Onwards, a dataset released by the provincial government in August 2012.

Can open data make government and businesses more efficient?

The so-called “raw material” of the 20th century bears big promises, but where does the hype end and its practical use begin? And how much private information do we want ending up on a startup’s server?

Held Tuesday at SFU’s Segal Graduate School of Business, Vancouver’s first Open Data Summit addressed the opportunities and potential pitfalls that proponents of public standardized sets of government data face. From technical issues – standardization, compliance with privacy statutes – to strategic challenges: how do we convince bureaucracies and corporations that releasing terabytes of data creates value and spurns innovation?

What is “open data?” It’s public sector information organizations publish on the Internet in a readable form with a license that permits public usage. Used with platforms, such as APIs (Application Programming Interface), proponents believe that it can give citizens, companies and public officials valuable insights into their decision-making. 

“Data is a resource that is more valuable when shared,” says Herb Lainchbury, a software developer and co-founder of OpenDataBC

The last time you checked in on Foursquare, planned your route by transit or search for library books on Amazon, your interface was powered by the mass amounts of data that provincial and municipal governments, corporations and private citizens have collected, released and licensed online.


DataBC’s Top Five Data Sets

1.     VRI – Forest Vegetation Composite Polygons and Rank 1 Layer
2.     BC Liquour’s annual sales by region and product type
3.     DataBC’s download statistics
4.     BC Census data
5.     BC public library statistics, 2010 to 2011

The economic value of open data was front and centre at Tuesday’s conference. “Businesses find it hard to imagine how they can both make money from data, and provide it for free,” says Herb Lainchbury.

Lisa Green, director of Common Crawl and a speaker at the Summit, pointed to datasets on drug prescriptions that the UK’s National Health Service released in December. By analyzing regional consumption of an expensive cholesterol-lowering drug and its generic counterpart, a startup team founded by a doctor and a programmer, helped discover more that £200m in annual savings.
Lainchbury believes in the need for a paradigm shift in how we approach data. Referring to the Canadian Real Estate Association’s (CREA) listings service the MLS, Lainchbury asks: “Are you in the business of selling houses or are you in the business of hording data?” By publishing and licensing that information for public use, Lainchbury believes that CREA, and similar organizations, could benefit from allowing developers and entrepreneurs to “mine” that information, perhaps drawing out valuable insights and considerable savings.
Entrepreneurs are already finding opportunities. Michael Lenczner, founder of Ajah, a startup that uses government data to help non-profits target donors, spoke to the opportunities for value-added services in the open data space. There are no $50-million opportunities in open data, and little interest from venture capital funds, said Lenczner in his presentation. However, there are substantial opportunities for small outfits to make a profit. A 2012 report from Deloitte Analytics laid out five emerging business models based on the release of public datasets, illustrating opportunities for API developers, consultants and aggregators who can store and publish data.
What’s next for open data? Critics worry that the impetus to publish data government agencies collect and store could affect what they end up collecting in the first place. Unstructured data, unclear legal frameworks and conflicts with copyright all present challenges. Lainchbury’s mission in the near future is convincing public and private organizations that releasing data will yield value.

“I think the ultimate responsibility for us as a community to communicate that message that its actually good for you.”