Opening Up About the Open Data Institute

As I've noted before, open data is one area where the UK government shines - unlike open source, where it has yet to deliver the goods. One of its bright ideas was the creation of an Open Data Institute (ODI), which I wrote about at the end of...


As I've noted before, open data is one area where the UK government shines – unlike open source, where it has yet to deliver the goods. One of its bright ideas was the creation of an Open Data Institute (ODI), which I wrote about at the end of last year. It still doesn't exist yet, but it does have a Web site with some interesting further information about its intentions.

The most detailed document is entitled "The ODI business plan" [.pdf]. Here are some of the highlights of the ODI "vision":

The vision is to establish the Open Data Institute (ODI) as a world-leading centre to innovate, exploit and research the opportunities for the UK created by the Government's Open Data policy.

Not only world-leading, the ODI is the first of its kind anywhere in the world and as such will become the ‘go to' venue for those countries, companies, institutions and other bodies seeking to understand Open Data, overcome the challenges of publishing Open Data, make commercial gain from Open Data and employ the best technologies to ensure Open Data is exploited in the best possible way.


The ODI will become an exemplar and we expect to see similar initiatives established around the world. Led by Professor Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt and involving business, public sector and academic institutions the ODI will be based in Shoreditch in East London.

The ODI will demonstrate the commercial value of Open Government Data (OGD) and the impact of Open Data policies on the realisation of this value. It will also develop the capability of UK businesses to exploit this value, with support from University researchers. It will help the public sector use its own data more effectively. It will engage with developers, the private and public sector to build supply chains and commercial outlets for public data. It will foster and train a generation of Open Data entrepreneurs. It will help secure and commission the required research in underpinning Open Data technologies. It will serve to benchmark Open Data initiatives not only in the UK but around the world.

The ODI will develop the economic benefits case and business model for Open Data building on commercial and academic evidence and its own analysis. The ODI will be seeking to highlight and demonstrate how Open Data can transform productivity and outcomes in public services, as well as drive enterprise value in the broader economy.

Not only that, but also this:

The ODI will embody the Power of Open – it will support open standards, open data, open licences and promote wherever feasible open source software.

So, those are all the grand generalities, but what about the nitty-gritty? To its credit, the ODI business plan goes into some detail about what it intends to do, and how it intends to do it. For example:

During the course of its initial funding the Institute will deliver focused support to small businesses in selected domains that show greatest promise for the exploitation of Open Data in a business or public sector context. These businesses will be selected by annual open competitions run by the ODI. It will liaise with existing community meet ups where many of these companies first surface. Mentoring teams will advise and help these young companies and start-ups in both the technical and business aspects of Open Data exploitation. Our own Open Data mentors and Open Data business consultants will provide day-to-day advice and support. Alongside our full-time staff we will also assemble expert panels to provide periodic review and advice on progress.

It also has some ideas of how it will help government departments liberate their data:

Working with organisations and departments in the Public Sector we would use small "Red Teams" to identify the Open Data opportunities within the organisation, provide examples of the use to which the data could be put and look to provide sustainable processes to continue to publish and exploit Open Data.


Red Teams comprise groups (usually a pair) of Open Data specialists who will be able to locate and publish data using appropriate standards and licences. They would then show the sorts of efficiencies and services that arise from Open Data publication. This would include close liaison with the Government Digital Service so that we can provide a good link between citizen facing applications and the provision of the data they require to function.

Ninja open data wranglers – nice. Similarly, there are plans for more academic activities:

The ODI will train a cohort of linked and Open Data technologists, entrepreneurs and evangelists. A variety of training courses will be offered in the area of Open and Linked Data Technologies. The main one will be a 3-month intensive short course in Open Data Technology leading to a postgraduate diploma in Open Data Technology. Designed as part of the University of Southampton's MSc in ‘Open Data and Web Technology' it will equip people with the tools, techniques and business methods of Open Data publication and application construction.

In addition, there will be the following:

An ‘Open Data Fellowship Programme' will also be run – as well as encompassing the same core material as for the Open Data Technologists these individuals will be involved in the acquisition of experience and knowledge around the Open Data policy, standards and mentoring skills for developing Open Data capabilities within organisations'. They will work explicitly with some of our start up companies.

As part of the Fellows' programme of study they will serve as ‘Open Data Evangelists' in public and private sector organisations. Their explicit role will be to create sustainable knowledge and understanding of OGD exploitation and business opportunities within the organisations in which they are placed. All of this will be to support capability building and best practice. In year 1 we will accept 6 Fellows in subsequent years Fellows. It is expected that the cost of Fellows will be met by individuals themselves or sponsoring organisations – there may be a possibility of bursaries in subsequent years but these have not been assumed.

The 60-page business plan fills out these ideas in some detail, as well as describing the organisation's structure and finances. It's well-worth reading, not least because it also includes some interesting case studies of how others have used open data to save and make money.

Overall, I'm impressed by the both the scale and completeness of the ambitions here. I think it's absolutely right to seek to engage with business, government and the academic world. They all represent different ways of understanding and using open data, and it's important to include every approach in this field, which is, after all, still being defined.

I also like the fact that the ODI is being located in Shoreditch: this will not only enable it to build relationships with startups in the area, but will also help cement this area of London as a key concentration of digital know-how. Perhaps the single most important reason for Silicon Valley's success has been an even greater concentration of high-tech companies, allowing people to move freely among them, taking knowledge and connections with them. It is the absence of a critical mass of companies that has hindered all other attempts to re-create the Silicon Valley magic.

I'm not saying that London's "Silicon Roundabout" has reached that critical level, but certainly locating the ODI there was a very wise – and probably indispensable – decision. Had it gone elsewhere, it would have been a very clear vote of no confidence in the area; with it, there is the hope that it can accelerate the founding of startups in general, and in the field of open data in particular.

My only concern with the ODI's plans is on the financial side. Here's where the money will be coming from:

The Open Data Institute will seek matched funding in a number of ways: actual financial contributions and donations; contributions in kind; sponsorship, secondments. It will also be commissioned, at a cost, to carry out specific pieces of work on behalf of organisations in the private sector and public sector.

Of course, it's very hard to tell beforehand how that is going to work out. Perhaps companies will understand the importance of open data and rush to work with the ODI. But supposing they don't? What happens if all that "matched funded" fails to materialise? How long will the government support the ODI before giving up?

I don't mean to be pessimistic here – I think the ODI is a great idea, and has exciting plans. But it would be good to have a firmer commitment from the government about supporting it through what may be difficult early stages. After all, it's done so well in supporting open data so far, it would be a pity if it were half-hearted here.

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