We live in an information society. The Apps and websites that we find most useful depend on being able to get hold of information that other organisations have.
For example, if you want to catch a bus, the App that you turn to needs to know the locations of the nearest bus stops, the routes of the buses that stop at those stops, their timetables (to see when they’re supposed to come) and preferably up-to-the-minute data about whether three are going to arrive at once.
All this information is stored and maintained by different organisations. Often it is replicated by more than one organisation. For example, Transport for London might know all the information about the buses in London, but so do the bus operators.
At the moment, information is often hoarded by organisations such that no one else can use it, or only made available to others for a steep fee. This is bad because:
- lots of Apps and websites that we would find useful require information that simply isn’t available; you couldn’t have an App that helped you catch a bus if the App developer couldn’t find out where the bus stops were
- lots of organisations end up collecting and maintaining the same information rather than sharing it, which is a lot of wasted effort; we end up with lots of lists of bus stops, all slightly different, used by different companies and giving you conflicting information
- if someone wants to write an App, they have to shell out some money not only to buy the information they need but also for lawyers to check that they are using it legally; when someone is writing an App in their spare time, trying to get a new company off the ground, they really can’t afford that
Open data changes this. When an organisation collects information about things other than individual people, it can make that information available for anyone else to use, for free. That means other organisations don’t have to make their own copies any more, and App developers don’t have to pay a big fee to start using the data.
What other services could you build if data were open? Here are just a few ideas:
- Nearest stock — Ever needed to find the final missing ingredient for a special dinner, and tramped from shop to shop looking for it before finally giving up? If shops opened up information about what theystock, applications could point you to the nearest one that has the item you’re looking for. You’d find it easier to get the things you need, and the shops that stocked them would benefit from your custom.
- Moving house — There are so many factors to think about when moving house: nearest transport links, school catchment areas and supermarkets. Applications that bring this information together could help you choose where to live, and keep you posted on homes that become available for rent or sale in those areas. Like having an electronic Kirsty & Phil.
- Flood warnings — If you live in a flood zone, you want to be warned about floods that might affect your property as soon as possible and not have to repeatedly check the BBC or Environment Agency website and work out whether your house falls in the warning zones. If information about flood zones and risk were available for free, entrepreneurs could offer a service that texted you with a warning as soon as a warning was issued that could affect your house.
- School links — Teachers could use information about school performance and local demographics to locate schools with similar pupil profiles that perform significantly better in particular subject areas, and then trade tips, tricks and materials to help them improve their own provision.
The benefits to the public are just the start though: with more information available, companies, local authorities and government can start making more sensible decisions about the things they do. And entrepreneurs can create companies that offer services around pulling together, analysing and visualising data, which are then incorporated into the products that we see and make use of.