open data instituteAs part of Global Transparency Week, the Open Data Institute (ODI) held its first annual summit at the end of October 2013. We’ve written previously about the way in which cities are starting to work with open data, so it was interesting to see this initiative on a more global scale.

What is the Open Data Institute?

The ODI was founded by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt as a non-profit, non-partisan company limited by guarantee. But that just describes its structure. Its work is wide-ranging and open, rather like its subject matter! It has the rather formidable objective of ‘making things happen’ in the arena of open data, and describes itself as a catalyst for “an open data culture that has economic, environmental and social benefits…[and] is a focal point for open data use by businesses, academia, government and global innovators”. Its work encompasses helping to open up data sources, provoke demand for data, and provide information and knowledge to address issues linked to open data. And open data itself? It is the making available of data to anyone who wishes to use it. Open data has been used, for example, to allow widespread weather forecasting from government weather data and app development in multiple areas.

The ODI is a membership community, with members including technologists, business people, strategists, policy makers, and entrepreneurs. They come from a wide range of sectors, including start-ups, academia, government and large corporations, and membership is available in a tiered structure. It is currently supported by a large grant from the UK government, but plans to move to a sustainable funding model over time, of which membership is a large part.

ODI Summit

Over 200 ODI members and others interested in open data came together for the October summit. Although the ODI has only been in operation a year, it has already stretched its reach around the world, and was able to draw in speakers working across three continents.

The summit started by setting the scene, with a keynote speech from Sir Tim Berners-Lee, and a ‘fireside chat’ between the two co-founders of ODI and Beth Noveck, Director of the Governance Lab at New York University and former US Deputy CTO. The session then brought together stories about how open data is already changing the world, across three continents. Speakers here were Loren Treisman, Executive of the Indigo Trust (a grant-making body that supports technology-driven projects that help to bring about social change in Africa), Drew Hemment, founder and CEO of Future Everything, and Catherine Bracy, Director of International Programmes from Code for America.

Session two discussed finance, politics and open data. There were several representatives of government there, from both UK and US, including the UK Information Commissioner and Chief Technology Officer, and the US Deputy CTO, as well as Kenneth Cukier, Data Editor of The Economist, and David Branch from Deloitte. The ‘lightning talks’ discussed open data innovation, with five speakers explaining what their organisation had done.

The panel discussion after lunch addressed the controversial topic of ‘Open Data: So What?’. The session was chaired by Ben Goldacre, whose ‘Bad Science’ blog addresses the issue of poor quality publications and particularly issues around peer review processes. Speakers were from both sides of the Atlantic, including the open data campaigner Paul Baker, of Webitects, and Michael Flowers, Chief Analytics Officer from the City of New York.

The session moved on to discuss the commercial impact of open data. Speakers here included Kevin Merritt, founder and CEO of Socrata, an organisation that aims to use data to improve people’s lives, Volker Buscher from Arup, and Richard Benjamins from Telefonica Digital, one of the ODI’s sponsors.

The final session discussed ‘data as culture’ with contributions from the controller of archive development at the BBC, and from a writer and artist, as well as the Head of Media Space and Arts Programmes at the Science Museum, London. This session was chaired by Julie Freeman, a TED Senior Fellow and Art Associate of the ODI, who “translates complex processes and data sets from natural sources into sound compositions, physical objects and animations”.

Where next for open data?

Gavin Starks, the CEO of the ODI, comments on its website that twenty years ago, everyone was asking ‘Why should I have a website?’, and now the question is ‘Why should I have open data?’. He, like many of the participants at the recent summit, believes that open data is crucial to improving lives. The question is really not ‘how?’, but ‘how soon?’ and ‘how much?’.



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