Why the world’s governments are interested in creating hubs for open data

Amid the tech giants and eager startups that have camped out in East London’s trendy Shoreditch neighborhood, the Open Data Institute is the rare nonprofit on the block that talks about feel-good sorts of things like “triple-bottom line” and “social and environmental value.” In fact, I first met ODI’s CEO Gavin Starks because he used to run AMEE, a startup that builds software for environmental data, and he was one of our first speakers at GigaOM’s early green conferences.
But ODI, which officially launched last October with funding from the U.K. government, is a private company and philanthropy isn’t its dominant aim. ODI helps companies, entrepreneurs and governments find value in the explosion of open data, and it seems to be starting to gain commercial success like a savvy street vendor selling hot cakes.

ODI CEO Gavin Starks, in front of art in the ODI offices in Shoreditch.

ODI CEO Gavin Starks, in front of art in the ODI offices in Shoreditch.

ODI’s CEO Gavin Starks told me that the governments of 25 countries have approached ODI to discuss working together to potentially create ODIs around the world — or at least some kind of global network — and 3 to 4 government representatives a week typically reach out to the group. Starks said he’s even been in early exploratory talks with the White House, which perhaps could one day lead to some sort of non-profit ODI America, or maybe an open data collaboration across the pond. On Obama’s call for open government data as a default, Starks says: “I wasn’t expecting to see machine-readable [data] in an executive order.”
Governments everywhere are embracing the idea that open data is the right way to manage services for citizens. The U.K. has been a leader on this — just check out the simplicity of gov.uk — which is one of the reasons why ODI is U.K. born.
A vending machine that only disperses its contents when the economy is bad, in the ODI offices.

A vending machine that only disperses its contents when the economy is bad, in the ODI offices.

It’s not just governments that are interested. ODI’s revenues come from a combination of research, consulting, and startup incubation, and the company counts large “member” clients like Telefonica, Virgin Media and Rackspace. “We’ve unlocked about $3 million worth of value for startups and other companies around us in contracts or prize money,” Starks told me. Startups in the ODI incubation club include Honest Buildings, Placr, and Locatable.
It doesn’t hurt that the company has some pretty well-known founders: internet pioneers Tim Berners-Lee and Nigel Shadbolt. The Institute was created with the thesis that open data can create economic, social and environmental value, and such a group could help partners figure out how to “mine” the goldmine of open data. Essentially open data can both create wealth but also make people’s lives better.
“Open data” is open access to the data that has exploded on the scene in recent years, some of it due to the rise of our connected, digital lifestyles from the internet, sensors, GPS, and cell phones, just to name a few resources. But ODI is particularly interested in working with data sets that can have big global and societal impacts, like health, financial, environmental and government data. For example, in conjunction with startup OpenCorporates, ODI recently helped launch a data visualization about Goldman Sachs’s insanely complex corporate structure.
ODI also has the not-so-enviable (depending on where you’re coming from) job of acting as a government watchdog, too, and holding government (including its own funder, the U.K. government) to task to keep government data open. That’s probably an easier task in the U.K. where the government has been flexible and progressive, at least on tech issues.
It’s still early days for the group, which has 20 employees and has also raised private funding from investor Pierre Omidyar’s fund. Starks sees open data in 2013 as being similar to the internet in 1995 — it’s just at the beginning and it’s difficult to tell exactly what’s going to come out of the evolution.
We’ll talk about open data, big data technologies, the London tech scene and other issues at our Structure:Europe conference in London on September 18 and 19. Come hang out with us.