Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

Encouraging innovation through data access initiatives

Tue Jun 15, 2021
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At the Open Data Institute (ODI), we want a world where data works for everyone. We work with organisations and people who steward and use data to act in ways that lead to the best social and economic outcomes for all.

The UK government’s National Data Strategy highlights how we can use data to tackle complex and important challenges. However, no individual organisation has the information, resources or decision-making power to tackle such challenges like achieving net zero or helping health services promptly respond to a pandemic. We need data ecosystems to tackle these challenges in open and innovative ways. When organisations come together to share and manage data, they can create value far beyond what would be available to the individual partners.

View the roundtable event page Apply to join the roundtable discussion on different approaches to data access initiatives

At the ODI, we are focusing on work that helps build and strengthen data ecosystems, particularly to encourage innovation in health, economic growth and responsible consumerism. Part of this work includes scoping, advising and helping to deliver what we call data access initiatives. We characterise the data access initiatives that we focus on as initiatives or programmes that:

  • tackle a clear social, environmental or economic challenge
  • involve multiple stakeholders that work together to solve the problem
  • include a strong focus on collecting, using and sharing data as part of their work

Data access initiatives vary in their design, approach and delivery. Below, we explore two examples of data access initiatives the ODI has helped support, and the different challenges and opportunities they presented.

OpenActive: a community-led approach to data access initiatives

Since 2016, the ODI has stewarded OpenActive, a data access initiative to tackle inactivity.  According to the latest Active Lives report, over 25% of adults are inactive – that is, doing less than 30 minutes of activity per week. And, a Sport England survey showed that people found it twice as easy to book a takeaway online than they did to book a sport or fitness session online. The OpenActive data standards make it easier to publish and share information about where, when and what activities are taking place.

Currently, over 100 organisations across the sport and physical activity sector help support the OpenActive initiative, and over 250,000 opportunities to get active are published every month. An external impact assessment of the OpenActive data standards estimated that the standards could save up to £3 million per year in health costs and generate up to a £20 million per year increase in productivity.

Individual organisations also benefit from the increased access to data: one case study found that leisure provider Everyone Active gained almost 11,500 members from its partnership with a data aggregator, 95% of whom had never been members before. Using open data about outdoors activities also helped Ordnance Survey meet the needs of a wider group of people as part of their Get Outside campaign.

OpenActive is an example of a community-led, grassroots data access initiative. It was initially conceived and launched by data aggregator startup imin, in collaboration with organisations in the sector such as London Sport as early as 2014. Sport England started funding the initiative in 2016, and has helped accelerate OpenActive’s growth and reach across the sector to where it is today through this funding and championing the initiative with key players. Participation in the initiative is not mandated by Sport England (for example as part of grant conditions) – organisations decide whether to join based on the value they attribute to it.

Open Banking: a regulatory-led approach to data access initiatives

Open Banking aims to stimulate innovation in the retail banking sector to make it easier for personal and small business banking customers to switch current accounts. The initiative has since evolved to focus on new use cases – such as account aggregation, and personal and SME financial management – which proved more popular for both banking customers and service providers.

Following its launch in 2018, more than 3 million people and businesses use open banking-enabled apps and services, and there are over 300 firms active in the market. This case study found that regulated data sharing often creates benefits for the organisations that share the data. For example, Barclays saw the benefits of being a leader in open banking early and, to better serve its customers, provided account aggregation services before most other banks. Open banking has become an international phenomenon, with similar programmes rolled out across many countries including India, Japan, Nigeria and the US.

Open Banking is an example of a top-down, legislative and regulatory approach to a data access initiative. It was set up by the Competition and Markets Authority through the CMA Order, and the ODI supported the creation of the Open Banking Working Group, which set out an Open Banking Standard. Compliance with the initiative is required for the nine biggest banks and building societies in the country, which were chosen due to their large combined market share of the UK’s consumer and small business bank accounts.

Contrasting the two approaches

Identifying the right challenge

For a data access initiative to be successful, there needs to be agreement on what the scope of the challenge is from the community affected by and the community participating in the initiative. Deciding the right governance structure for an initiative, and whether it should be more regulatory-led or community-led, depends on the challenge.

We have developed a number of tools to help organisations to explore and understand the right structure and incentives for a data access initiative, depending on the context. The Data Landscape Playbook brings together tools, resources and advice to help organisations that are building data infrastructure to address common challenges.

Adapting to new use cases

Our research shows that frequently, while initiatives have a broad vision, they focus on identifying a narrower set of use cases or problem statements to tackle within their early activities.

A community-led approach has the potential for more flexibility in the problems it chooses to address, due to the wide range of voices consulted and less restrictive governance structures. For example, OpenActive is exploring overlaps and opportunities beyond the sport and physical activity sector like social prescribing (where link workers recommend community-based activities to help address individuals’ chronic and/or subclinical conditions).

In contrast, a regulatory-led initiative is constrained by the regulator that it operates under. While Open Banking has identified new use cases since its first launch, a 2019 ODI report highlighted other opportunities for Open Banking that are currently missing within the initiative, as they don’t fall under the scope of the pieces of regulation that inform the Open Banking Standard. It recommended that to ‘maximise consumer benefit, Open Banking may require a new regulatory underpinning in future.’

While a community-led approach does potentially allow for more flexibility, there is still a risk that use cases will be missed if they don’t align to the priorities of the most engaged members.

Crucially, both regulatory-led and community-led initiatives need to consider and incorporate the voices of the target end user. In Open Banking, this means consumers of personal or small bank accounts; and in OpenActive, this means inactive people. Typically, it’s the businesses that serve these end users who influence the direction of an initiative. The ODI recently recommended as part of its response to the future oversight of the CMA’s open banking remedies that the CMA should take a wider view – including benefits to consumers, to society and to the environment – and engage with groups such as people in vulnerable circumstances. While business priorities and creating value for those organisations that are sharing and using data is important, this shouldn’t be at the expense of losing the consumer’s voice, and understanding what their needs are.

Encouraging participation and behaviour change

A Bennett Institute for Public Policy report on the value of data, funded by the ODI and Nuffield Foundation, found that due to the economic characteristics of data and the data economy, we can’t rely on the market to naturally unlock the value of data.

In both Open Banking and OpenActive, there are organisations within the ecosystem that will incur costs to provide access to data, yet will not receive any direct or immediate benefits. Though they may benefit indirectly, for example through improved customer experience, it means that it is very hard to build the internal business case to justify the investment. This often leads to a lack of strong incentive to be among the first to adopt the open standards.

A regulatory-led data access initiative like Open Banking provides the necessary driver for the dominant market players that control access to data to invest time and resources in complying with the initiative. As a result, implementation can move relatively quickly.

For OpenActive, without a clear incentive, it has at times been difficult for large organisations that steward data to justify investing time and resources in the initiative, even if they believed in the overall mission of sharing data to help more people to get active. To create the necessary business case, OpenActive is often reliant on these organisations’ customers prioritising  OpenActive by including adherence to it in contractual requirements to create mass demand. This creates much longer lead times for implementation than in a more top-bottom approach.

However, how to enforce participation in a data access initiative is just one of the types of incentive and enforcement mechanisms required to satisfy different groups in a data ecosystem. Anyone leading an initiative should also consider the following questions (inspired, in part, by this image):

  • What data infrastructure should you provide to make it easy for innovators to create value?
  • How can you help early adopters to access the tools and services created as part of a data access initiative?
  • How can you engage end users to ensure you’ve created the right, normative environment for them to use the services?
  • How can you collaborate with data holders and data users to identify value and use cases?

A blended approach

From our experience working on and researching data access initiatives, we believe that a data access initiative will always need a blended approach of top-down and grassroots. While regulatory-led, Open Banking also relies on a committed community to make it a success, and identify new opportunities beyond the scope of the initial regulation to generate wider impact for consumers and industry. Similarly, without the support and influence of an organisation like Sport England, OpenActive wouldn’t have made the progress it has to date.

On Wednesday 7 July, we’ll host a roundtable with a mix of individuals from across the public and private sector to discuss approaches to data access initiatives further. We are particularly interested in hearing their views about this topic, what approaches would work best in their domains, and what they think are the main challenges a data access initiative might tackle in their sector. A recording will be shared after the event.

If you’re interested in finding out how a data access initiative could help solve an important challenge in your domain, please get in touch here.