26. June 2013–
Got a great idea for a business but can't access the data to make it happen? The Open Data Institute – an ambitious new organisation headquartered in a 5,000 square feet space in East London – might be able to help.
The ODI, founded in 2012 by Sir Tim Berners-Lee (the "godfather of the worldwide web") and artificial intelligence pioneer Sir Nigel Shadbolt, is run by experienced entrepreneur Gavin Starks. It's not-for-profit – so far, it's mostly backed by £10 million in UK public funding and another $750,000 from US investment firm Omidyar Network.
Data-driven startup incubator
Part of the ODI's work happens directly with startups. It runs an incubator that provides the usual mix of mentorship, office space and other support, with ten companies accepted so far. “We are looking to support ideas that create economic, environmental, and social value,” the company's website explains. “It’s not just about creating venture-backed, exit-focused startups: we will prioritise those who create the biggest impact (cf: work on stuff that matters).”
One company in the programme, Honest Buildings, an online marketplace and discovery portal for real estate projects, just closed a $5.5m Series A funding round. Another, Mastodon C, recently helped uncover £200m in potential savings for the UK's NHS. A third, OpenCorporates, is building the world's largest open database for company infomation.
The ODI's most potentially world-changing work, however, takes place at a higher level. It runs events and training programmes to educate corporates, startups, civic organisations, journalists and officials about open data. At the recent G8 summit at Loch Erne in Northern Ireland, it announced a new Open Data Certificate system to smooth the path for data release and keep open data standards high.
At the same time – and it's impossible not to see the ODI's hand in this – the G8's leaders signed up to a new Open Data Charter. The US, UK, Russia, Japan, Canada, France, Germany and Italy are now signed up in principle to “open data by default”.
Open data by default = big potential for startups
If that happens, it'll be great for startup founders. Big data is big business. Entrepreneurs and investors worldwide are working to turn large or complex data sets into fresh new tools – and while it's what you do with data that ultimately counts, access is essential.
Take Waymate, a two-year-old Berlin startup that wants to build the only app customers need to plan, compare and book a trip door-to-door. It's a great idea – one a few other companies are working on too – and needs access to hundreds of transport providers' data to be fully realised. Over the last two years, Waymate CEO Maxim Nohroudi estimated, they've been in touch with almost 100 potential partners.
Some, like Waymate's first partner Deutsche Bahn, already have APIs or some sort of open dataset. For others, it's the first time they've considered opening up data externally, which means more time and effort to address concerns and set up a process.
“My dream would be that you could go to a transport authority and that they have a mindset where it's very natural to share your data with you,” Nohroudi said – provided the applicant can meet the right quality requirements, of course. “If we had that, you could potentially connect new companies every week.”
Now for the tricky part...
The ODI's end goal is to help address social, environmental and economic challenges. “By opening up infomation from different areas, whether that's transport data, health, education information, resource flows, financial flows – joining these different pieces of data together will help us address some of those challenges," ODI CEO Gavin Starks said during the recent European Young Innovators' Forum Unconvention 2013 in Brussels.
There are challenges combining social goals and open data principles with commercially sustainable businesses. If data is genuinely open, it's hard to charge customers to use it. Starks (pictured above) pointed to OpenCorporates as an example for how these different objectives can co-exist:
“If you want to use infomation for free, you can. If you create derivative infomation from that and release it for free, fine. If you create derivative infomation that is paid for, you then have to pay back up the chain,” he said. “There's a mechanism here emerging that enables open licensing and commercial models to co-exist.”
What's next for the ODI?
The ODI's team is working to sign up more companies and governments to its Open Data Certificates programme. It's also likely we'll see the ODI itself expand from the UK to other countries around the world. “What we're trying to work out is how to take a charter-based model for the ODI – a set of commitments around values, tools and standards, and a brand, and not just have one based in London but build a network,” Shadbolt, the ODI's co-founder and chairman, said this week.
"It's a work in progress and we can't say very much about it right now but watch this space. It's something that could really develop quite quickly."
numbers: Flickr user Rodrigo Moraes
Deutsche Bahn: Flickr user Matt Buck
Gavin Starks: Flickr user DFID - UK Department for International Development