Open Data – the concept of data that is freely available for anyone to use, in whatever ways they choose – has been around for years. Historically, the focus was mainly on having governments open up their data and become more transparent. Yet today, we are seeing a shift to the use of Open Data in business.
Why Open Data in business? Well, for one, a McKinsey report estimated that open source data could be worth between $3 and $5 trillion annually. McKinsey has also projected that by 2030, data-enabled applications of artificial intelligence (AI) could generate $13 trillion in new global economic activity. Clearly, there is money to be made from the use of Open Data. But how? And what are the benefits beyond economic gain?
There are many large corporations that have begun to open up their data and have seen significant financial benefits from doing so. For instance, by opening up what was formerly proprietary data, Amazon has been able to increase sales by “exposing product information to the largest possible number of potential customers.”
Amazon is not alone in this. Companies such as Google, Asos, and Nike have made more data open to their customers, demonstrating their commitments to transparency and sustainability, which has improved their customer connections. But the benefits these companies, and others, stand to achieve also extend well beyond the bottom line.
If we examine the history of Open Data, we can clearly see that it emerged from the idea of “Open Science” – a concept that was born out of the rise of online journals in the 1990s. This shift to Open Science was spurred by the fact that much research is funded by the public’s tax dollars, and thus they ought to have open access to the resulting insights (vs. hiding those results behind paywalls). Open Science also took into account what many would argue was the original intent of scientific research – to support transparency and collaboration.
Those two words – transparency and collaboration ¬– highlight the reasons beyond the financial that we need Open Data in business today. Not only can it improve research by increasing the reproducibility of results, generating larger sample sizes, and maximizing taxpayer funding in cases of publicly funded projects, but it also creates more opportunities for innovation and collaboration.
As different organizations share their data, others will be able to take it and use it in novel ways to achieve benefits on multiple fronts. For example, better solutions to common challenges might be found by looking at a wide breadth of information that is more representative of the people who face them. Or, hidden synergies between what may have appeared to be unrelated organizations could become more apparent, enabling new partnerships to grow and improving outcomes for all involved parties.
The Conversation cites Future City Glasgow as an example of how Open Data initiatives in the public sector could also work to enhance the public good, as it uses “open data to create predictive systems that provide the information citizens need to make better day-to-day decisions.” This same logic can be applied to business, as we start to apply Open Data to improve decision-making within our companies.
This is not to diminish the challenges that Open Data faces. To begin, how do we make it appealing and beneficial for researchers to open up their data? The phrase “publish or perish” is one many public and academic researchers are forced to live by, as the production of data in and of itself is not rewarded or recognized. The fear of getting scooped or having a career trajectory stopped in its tracks because one isn’t publishing enough is real, and we must find ways to mitigate this in our public research.
We must also consider the very real concerns around protecting the privacy of those whose data is being shared. This is a challenge we are only just beginning to address at the necessary scale and will require companies of all kinds to step up and find innovative measures to protect privacy while governing bodies catch up to this shift – and governing bodies will certainly need to catch up quickly.
Finally, many businesses simply don’t see the benefit of sharing proprietary information, fearing instead that it will make them less competitive. This requires a shift in mindset – moving away from thinking about Open Data solely benefitting society and towards its potential to drive beneficial business outcomes. Effectively, both can be true and achievable, and it’s time we embraced that.
Internally, many businesses are facing similar opportunities and challenges when it comes to making their data accessible. The response has been a shift to data democratization – making data available to everyone within the organization, rather than holding it all within the research or insights function. Why? Because, according to Forrester, up to 73% of the data within a company goes unused.
This is a tremendous amount of insight – and, subsequently, potential dollars – being left on the table. To overcome this, we are seeing organizations such as Mars Wrigley and RBC Royal Bank shifting their corporate cultures to embed data-driven thinking into every business function and, in doing so, democratize their data internally.
What is important to realize, however, is that the burden of these changes cannot be placed solely on individuals. They must be supported by organizational infrastructure, including technology that allows the sharing of data to be a seamless process, rather than a cumbersome obstacle. The simpler it is to share data, the more likely it is to happen.
As this shift happens more and more within organizations, it must also begin to happen externally. Elinor Ostrom, winner of a Nobel Prize for Economics in 2009, believed Open Data was a new kind of “public good”. Huston, Edge, and Bernier explain that the “thinking was that unlike other types of public good, the use of Open Data does not deplete the common stock, but potentially enriches it.”
When done responsibly and ethically, Open Data improves outcomes for both large and small businesses, as well as consumers and the public at large. We have so much to gain by opening up, and the time to start is now.
About the author
As the President and Chief Innovation Officer of one of the fastest-growing companies in research tech and data collection, Steve Mast excels at challenging the status quo. He has transformed Delvinia from a digital strategy and design consultancy to an incubator to transform the consumer insight and market research industry. Trained as an architectural technologist, Mast uses this unique perspective to inspire and spearhead his team, tackling opportunities that no other company is addressing in order to help an impressive roster of Fortune 500 clients gather, use and protect data.