Dan JellinekEditorFriday 19 December 2014

Environmental data surge "leads to market innovation"

Environment Agency Data Advisory Group chair Tom Smith.The release of environmental data in England is leading to greater innovation in data use and competition in data markets, according to the chair of a new environmental data advisory body.

Last week, Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude announced UK flood data would be made freely available by the Environment Agency for the first time, a move brought forward from next April with Cabinet Office funding.

In all, the agency holds about 1,700 datasets on everything from flood risk to the environmental impact of business; waste processing; water quality; and the numbers of otters and salmon in England. Earlier this year it committed to ensuring as much of this information as possible is published as open data, with the latest flood datasets bringing the total released as open data to about 100.

Last month the agency set up an independent advisory group to examine which datasets it should release next, with members including data resellers, academics and open data advocates. The group - which is supported by the Open Data Institute - is chaired by Tom Smith, former member of the government's Open Data User Group and himself an open data entrepreneur.

"Back in May, the Environment Agency board made a commitment to move towards being a more open data organisation, recognising the data it holds is extremely valuable for social and economic good for users outside the agency", Smith told UKAuthority.com this week.

The move followed intense political pressure earlier in the year to release data following heavy winter floods, and after a rapidly-convened "Flood Hack" event in February had successfully released data to volunteer developers supported by major tech companies such as Google, Smith said.

"This showed the sorts of outputs you could get if data was free and available to all users, like alerts for residents based on flooding levels in their area."

This led to more data release and last week's publication of three "vast geographical datasets", he said, including formerly the most commercially valuable dataset of all those held by the agency: the Risk of Flooding from Rivers and Sea (RoFRS) data, which sets out risk by area or down to individual property level.

These data are fundamental components in the insurance and conveyancing sectors, and their release opens up the possibility for home owners to try and examine how their insurance quotes are compiled, Smith said. Local flood protection groups will also be able to carry out their own assessments and working with the Environment Agency to determine priority actions for cutting risk in their areas, he said.

The data release will result in a loss of revenue to the agency, with flood risk data formerly "the single biggest ticket item" worth several hundred thousand pounds a year, Smith said. However in the scheme of things it had been deemed worthwhile. "In times of budget tightness you need to look at all revenue losses, clearly you don't want to lose money that might weaken flood defences, but the commercial revenue of the agency is a very small proportion of its overall budget."

And social value would be generated by boosting business competition and innovation, he said. "If there is an existing data market that is already competitive, by making some of the input data free you do lower the barrier to entry, effectively increasing the likelihood of competition. So this may disrupt services, but if you looking at the public good, the costs of output are reduced because companies no longer have to pay licence fees.

"Also, the ability to innovate is improved because you are lowering barriers to people coming in and trying something new."

With 1,600 agency datasets still not released, however, there remains a long way to go to realise its commitment to open data, Smith said.

"The Environment Agency is moving in the right direction, but now you need to look at what are the priorities for releasing data that will have most impact externally; how do we ensure we release data that will encourage innovation and social good rather than just the easy low hanging fruit; and can we release data that in turn helps the agency deliver its outcomes to improve the environment?"

Pictured: Environment Agency Data Advisory Group chair Tom Smith.
Environment Agency Data Advisory Group launch blog: https://environmentagency.blog.gov.uk/2014/11/17/helping-us-make-the-most-of-our-information/