Michael CrossEditorTuesday 12 February 2013

Open data an untapped goldmine

Campaigners for open public sector data have long argued that the cost of freeing data for reuse will be exceeded by gains from economic activity and more efficient public services.

That argument is largely an act of faith.However a new study by an international consultancy suggests that evidence of economic returns is building - and that the UK will be among the first nations to experience it.

In The Open Data Economy: Unlocking Economic Value by Opening Government and Public Data, consultancy CapGemini examines government open data initiatives around the world. It finds that, by October 2011, 28 nations had established open data portals - however, very few are taking the right steps towards realizing economic benefits.

The report classifies initiatives in three categories. The UK and US are "trend setters", along with Canada, Australia and France. "Beginners" include Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Austria and - surprisingly - Estonia. Belgium and Hong Kong are among the midfield "followers" in between.

The UK scores points for "strong dissemination of government data amongst users, with almost 9,000 datasets published and more than 541,500 dataset views since starting its open data portal in 2010".

When it comes to economic returns, worldwide geographic/cartographic data remains the most widely exploited for business, followed by business and financial, socio demographic and legal.

The report cites a Finnish study suggesting that free open data encourages economic dynamism: firms that reuse government released geographical data, either freely or at marginal costs, grew 15% more per year than in countries that price such information with an objective of recovering costs. The Weather Channel, a US TV network, and GPS giant Garmin were built using raw government data, the study notes.

However the standout UK case study is in a different sector: medicine. Mastodon C, a start-up company incubated at the Open Data Institute in London and Open Health care UK (a consortium of NHS doctors and technologists dedicated to improving patient care by opening up health data), worked with publicly available NHS data on statin prescriptions. They looked at over 37 million rows of data and analyzed how much money was spent in each area on more expensive proprietary drugs. They found that the NHS in England could have saved over £200m in 2011 by prescribing generic rather than proprietary statins.

That's a serious potential payback. No doubt the CapGemini report will be well received by the UK Cabinet Office.