In 2020–21, we set up a stimulus fund as part of the fourth year of the Open Data Institute (ODI)’s R&D programme – funded by Innovate UK – and our broader programme of work on data institutions. The fund aimed to help explore approaches that enable trustworthy and ethical data sharing to help citizens and businesses lower their impact on the environment, improve public services and save lives.


Institutions and initiatives that support access to data are essential to create open, trustworthy data ecosystems that address social, environmental and economic challenges. There are many different approaches to creating data institutions, and they frequently run into both common and unique challenges. We were interested in understanding the types of data infrastructure and ecosystems that must be created in order for data access initiatives to successfully address specific challenges. In May 2020, we published an open call for a stimulus fund to explore increasing access to data in trustworthy ways across key sectors.

Following an open application process, we selected seven initiatives to explore two aspects of data institutions and data access initiatives:

  • The revenue models, funding sources, and cost structures that would help data access initiatives or data institutions to become sustainable.
  • The data infrastructure that needs to be created or strengthened for data access initiatives or data institutions to be successful.

The winners

Seven initiatives were selected to develop infrastructure and explore approaches on how to make data institutions and data access initiatives sustainable. The initiatives we selected represented a range of different sectors including culture, energy, health and waste.

  • Open Climate Fix developed a prototype for an Energy Data Search portal to increase access to shared energy data, and make the electricity grid more efficient.
  • Your Dsposal developed an open standard to help increase transparency and accountability in the waste sector, to end the confusion about what can and cannot be recycled.
  • DNV explored the role data, and trusted data access initiatives, can play in supporting the investment, initiation, execution and operation of carbon capture and storage, and hydrogen projects.
  • Collections Trust developed a proposal to transform the way collections data flows between UK museums, their audiences, and their partners in academia and the creative industries.
  • Open Data Manchester developed a data cooperative prototype to enable energy cooperatives in the UK to share personal energy data in trustworthy ways.
  • ODI Leeds produced a ‘Collaborative Community Playbook’ to share best practice on how to make ad hoc formed interest communities sustainable, and help them to retain their momentum beyond the initial set-up phase.
  • Etic Lab explored the appeal and potential of ‘Data Federations’ in the charitable sector and how they could help participants attempt machine learning projects that would otherwise have been impracticable.

The Project

The 2020-21 data access stimulus fund was part of the ODI’s research and development programme which included: a project to support data institutions in becoming sustainable and a project to create guidance and tools to help sectors build data infrastructure and address common challenges. It also formed part of a broader programme of work on data institutions.

This integrated approach was a new way for the ODI to develop insights from our ongoing research into the topics of data infrastructure and sustainable data access models. The intention was to share what we have learned in our research – as we developed it – and to collect feedback on our insights and approach from those who themselves have developed real life solutions for similar challenges.

Through the stimulus fund we provided financial support to awarded organisations to enable them to respond and explore specific social, technological or economic challenges. The ODI complemented the financial award through bespoke 1:1 support. In addition, we encouraged peer learning by inviting existing data access initiatives to share their experiences, and by introducing the initiatives to relevant internal ODI experts, and external experts in the field. This created a collaborative environment that spawned new relationships, opportunities and learning.

What was challenging

Finding commonality between projects – the data access stimulus fund winners represented a variety of different sectors – charitable organisations, culture, clean energy, health and waste. The ODI team needed to get up to speed with the specific sector challenges in a relatively short amount of time. What helped was to understand early on what common ground existed between the groups in terms of their aspirations and the challenges they tried to overcome – including their need to build strong stakeholder relationships and build support for their ideas.

Facilitating peer networking during Covid-19 – this was the most challenging aspect of delivery. While we managed to facilitate alternative forms of engagement, such as increasing discussions within workshops, or by adding peer learning events to the programme, we struggled to virtually replicate the organic, flexible texture that in-person networking provides.

Open Innovation – some of the workshops and the user testing were developed as part of live ODI research work. This meant that a lot of the content was still in development, or incomplete, until just before it was shared with the stimulus fund winners. At times this made it difficult to plan and communicate what exactly our open innovation support would entail; we could have been better at communicating what was expected from the participants, especially in the user testing workshops.

What went well

Peer learning events – the opportunity to connect with a diverse group of people and organisations that have experience setting up data access initiatives added great value to the programme. Participant feedback highlighted that these expert advisory events are great opportunities to ask practical questions and to learn from the experiences of organisations that have tackled similar challenges while setting up or managing a data access initiative.

1:1 mentorship – provided ongoing advisory support and introductions to experts, both within the ODI and externally. Participant feedback highlighted that the mentorship support helped them to maintain momentum, and that it provided valuable space to think and talk through ideas and challenges. This meant that the stimulus fund winners received bespoke feedback and were offered introductions to relevant resources and experts that otherwise would have been difficult to obtain. It also meant that the ODI mentors could gain valuable insights into the sectors the teams were working on.

Learning from the stimulus fund winners – the programme enabled the Sustainable Data Access and Data Infrastructure for Common Challenges R&D teams at the ODI to access relevant use cases. Having access to dedicated user research groups allowed them to do in depth user testing and to test assumptions frequently. Many tools presented in the Data Landscape Playbook were shaped by the insights gained from the stimulus fund winners – and using this experience we could specifically target the needs of those in the early-stages of setting up data access initiatives. Equally, the Sustainable Data Access project tested assumptions for their Sustainable Access Workbook by working closely with one of the stimulus fund winners.

What we learned

Create workshop scenarios that people will relate to – we discovered in the workshops that the stimulus fund winners have a real desire to learn from each other and that they take satisfaction from working collaboratively to help them understand which approaches work (and which do not). Though we had plenty of content to share in our workshops, we learned that there was real value for participants in using the workshop environment to create space for discussion, and that the insight gained from those encounters can be as important as the content shared through the workshop. Tailoring workshop content to explore the specific challenges that participants face can support these peer-learning experiences.

Tailor support to what a startup can absorb – many small startups and projects operate on limited resources. Shortage of time means that though support is welcome, it can also become a burden. Building a programme that works for this group is a balancing act – weighing up the benefits of a programme enabling free knowledge transfer versus an offer that is good, but strains available resources. It is important to allow for some flexibility, and to make participation in some events voluntary.

Developing a sustainable business model remains challenging – we observed that early-stage data access initiatives often take a tactical approach to decision-making and that at this stage they do not always have the capacity to make use of what strategic business planning tools can offer. We realised that at this stage in an organisation’s evolution there is value in exploring scalability and sustainability through less structured events, such as peer learning sessions where engaging in speculative discussions and analysing use cases can sown the seeds for future development.

If you’d like to know more about the individual data access stimulus fund projects, please read through their case studies published on our website

Our approach to innovation – funding individual projects around a challenge and building ad hoc peer networks to help achieve a wider objective – is one that has proven to work for the ODI. We currently also have an international peer-learning network in partnership with Microsoft that is designed to convene data collaborations to enable them to learn from each other.

Read the ODI R&D data access stimulus fund case studies