Understand Open Data in 21 Minutes

3 Comments30 January 2014


Book launch photo


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Last week’s book launch for Open Data Now - with thanks to the Data Transparency Coalition and FedScoop – was an opportunity for members of the Washington Open Data community to network and exchange ideas. I had a chance to catch up with Chris Vein of the World Bank, former U.S. Deputy CTO, who spoke to the group about our work together on the White House Task Force on Smart Disclosure and the work on Open Data that’s followed. After a gracious introduction from Chris, I had a chance to present a summary of the major themes of the book and explain why I believe Open Data is such an important trend.

I’ve posted a podcast of my remarks and an edited transcript for anyone who wants an overview of the field – think of it as Open Data in 21 minutes:


TRANSCRIPT: Joel Gurin 1-22-14 PDF

Here are some of my thoughts, from my remarks last week. Please comment and let me know if you agree.

Big Data vs. Open Data: Some of the classic examples of Big Data are things like national security data, data that retailers collect about their customers, or data that banks keep on credit card holders.  It’s the model of “data is power” and if you own the data, you own the power.  A lot of Big Data is also Open Data, but a lot of the Big Data that people think about, especially in the business context, is data that somebody owns and they rule by owning it. Open Data in many ways is the exact opposite.  Open Data is a democratic and a democratizing idea and one that is business savvy at the same time.  The basic idea of Open Data is not to benefit the people who hold the data but to set it free in a way that can benefit the public in important ways.  I think of it as data with a public purpose;  I think of it as data with a mission. The mission can be to promote government accountability, help start new businesses, accelerate scientific research, or do many other things that are part of the public good.  

Why the Open Data Policy will be hard to implement: There are something like 10,000 federal information systems.  The comparison that people use is that last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where there’s stuff in there somewhere in that warehouse that’s worth something, but good luck finding it. That’s certainly not true of all federal data systems but it’s true of too many of them.  So turning this all into Open Data is not going to happen overnight.  We have to set priorities.  We have to figure out how to get the data users – businesses, advocates, or others in government itself – connected with the data holders in the agencies so we can implement the Open Data Policy in a way that’s durable and can have an impact. Assuming we can do that, the potential is huge.

Why we can’t predict where Open Data will lead: If you look at the classic examples of Open Data, one of them is the release of GPS and one of them is the release of weather data.  Now think about GPS.  President Reagan announced the intent to make GPS data available to the public 10 years before cellphones were ubiquitous, and it was another 10 years before they even had primitive screens on them.  I don’t think the president said back then, “You know, someday we’re going to have Uber and FourSquare.”  But those are apps that are enabled by GPS data.  The point is you can’t actually see where this is going to go. But we’re seeing a more and more rapid cycle between the availability of Open Data and its application that’s leading to some very exciting things.

On the billion-dollar success of the Climate Corporation: They started off with a very basic proposition:  They said, “We want to improve how we sell weather insurance.” . . . . But they realized that to do this well they had to go deeper and deeper into the data . . . .  And when they got that much information, they could do more than just sell weather insurance.  They actually had the knowledge to help farmers around the world adapt to climate change and increase their profitability by 20 to 30 percent.

There are two important things about this.  One is that as you start down the path of Open Data, explore it, and get data analysts, mathematicians, and scientists working on it, you don’t know where it’s going to end up, and it can end up in some remarkable places.  The other thing is that this company built a billion dollar business out of absolutely free Open Data.  You don’t have to own the data.  You can use the same data that anybody could access, but by bringing together the brilliance of the analysis, the entrepreneurs and the people who have a deep understanding of the subject – that’s how business value is created.

On the companies in the Open Data 500What’s interesting about these companies is not just their business success but their mission success.  There are companies like one called We Make It Safer, which is all about getting safety data to people.  There are companies like Good Guide: they use data from the EPA and other sources to help people make environmentally safe choices. Or GreatSchools, which is nonprofit: they use state data, and now reach almost half of all people with K through 12 kids to help them find better public schools.  There is tremendous opportunity here to do well by doing good; Open Data is very suited to that.

On Open Data for sustainabilityThere’s also a lot of data coming now in what are being called ESG measures, for Environment-Social-Governance.  This is a huge potential social change.  The Carbon Disclosure Project, which has been doing this for years, now represents institutional investors with 87 trillion dollars’ worth of assets. These are investors who are extremely interested in the carbon footprint and the stability of the companies they have invested in.  More and more investors are demanding sustainability from American and international companies and they have to release the data to prove their operating sustainably to get those investment dollars.  So that’s becoming a huge application of Open Data with business implications and great social value.

- Joel Gurin, Founder and Editor,


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