July 18, 2013 by Bernadette Hyland.

The Open Data Institute (ODI) based in London is “catalyzing the open data culture to unlock supply, generate demand, create and disseminate knowledge” per Gavin Starks, CEO, ODI. “The Open Data movement has been going for more than a decade. We want to catalyze its evolution and ensure it is inclusive through reach, engagement and impact” noted Gavin who spoke in July at the Aspen Institute’s Forum on Communications and Society Conference.

Along with ODI chairman, Professor Nigel Shadbolt, pioneering co-founder of the ODI and one of the world’s leading experts in Web science, Gavin gave an update on ODI’s efforts to bridge the public and private sectors using open data. He described the funding model which includes securing £10 million over five years from the UK Government (via the UK innovation agency, the Technology Strategy Board), and $750,000 from Omidyar Network, (which also funds the US based Sunlight Foundation). The ODI’s is progressing towards long-term sustainability through match funding and direct revenue, including $750,000 in commercial membership fees, from firms including Virgin Media, Rackspace, NTT, Qantum Computing. In nine months, the ODI has hosted over 3,000 visitors which include the leading UK based open data startups, hackers and artists.

This past April, in an East London pub, Nigel and I discussed how the US might leverage some of what ODI has created in terms of a framework to more effectively catalyze the US open data movement. I was delighted to learn that the ODI has anticipated this positive response and is prepared to share the roadmap of how to set up an Open Data Institute, including mission and charter documents, as well as to provide valuable guidance. Not surprisingly, open data advocates from over 22 countries have asked how to set up their own Open Data Institute.

Why have a US ODI?

US Government agencies and departments have enormous amounts of valuable data that remains locked in data silos or cumbersome Web portals that often require experts to find, let alone use. The White House, US Department Health and Human Services, National Library of Medicine and the Department of Energy have pioneered opening valuable government data but we have so much further to go. US departments and agencies are spending billions of dollars to collect and curate comprehensive government-funded scientific, technical, engineering and business information. Helping agencies and departments to share this information among themselves, with one another, the research community, entrepreneurs and the public is the fuel of our nation’s innovation future. This is precisely why I believe a US-based Open Data Institute is necessary to help unlock the supply, generate demand and ensure the sustainability and maintainability of open government data efforts.

The US is home to several notable non-profits dedicated to government transparency such as the Sunlight Foundation who recently hosted Transparency Camp 2013 (“TCamp13”) in Washington DC with attendance of 500 participants from over 25 countries and 33 US States. Code for America is doing phenomenal work focused on civic collaboration and innovation within American cities. The OpenGovHub in Washington DC collocates a range of non-profit organizations working on the open government agenda. Aware of these many fine organizations and programs, I remain convinced that an organization dedicated to providing a forum for unlocking the supply of open data and helping government stakeholders publish valuable data is critical to the United States innovation future.

US Open Data Community is Nascent

Noteworthy projects exist but most are not getting the attention they rightfully deserve. Case studies articulating the value proposition and ROI can and should be documented for these highly relevant deployments. As a serial entrepreneur, I routinely speak with other company co-founders, researchers and healthcare delivery executives, who need access to authoritative datasets that are either not available or very cumbersome to use. Based on my experience deploying production open data services, including the heavily used persistent identifiers service on behalf of the US Government Printing Office (GPO), that resolves over 36 million hits per month from search engines and robot, and over 1 million hits from policy makers, legislators, university librarians and citizens, we need a central driving strategy blessed by the Executive and Congress (ideally), guided by people who know what is possible technically.

The US open data community needs a forum that is a meeting place for open discussion and voicing of ideas. A window of opportunity has cracked open and we musr not take it for granted. Those who value science, technology and business data need to put both virtual and physical infrastructure in place to ensure open data sustainability and longevity. It is great to have White House executives including Todd Park (US Federal CTO), Steve vanRoekel (US Federal CIO), Nick Sinai, (Deputy CTO OSTP) and Bryan Sivak, (CTO of US Department of Health and Human Services), passionately support a US Open Data Policy that encourages government agencies to manage information as a valuable asset.

Bipartisan Support for Open Data

I’m delighted to see that there is bipartisan support for open government data. White House Executives have most recently driven publication of the “Open Data Policy, managing information as an asset” recorded in M-13-13. On May 13, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hosted the second DATA Act Demonstration Day where members of Congress, Congressional staffers and the public learned how open data technologies can help the Federal Government cut waste, streamline reporting and improve public accountability. Chairman Darrell Issa, Ranking Member Elijah Cummings, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor opened the event and each showed a nuanced understanding of the importance of open data technologies, allowing policy makers, Congress, journalists, scientists and citizens to better use government data. Twenty-five leading tech companies and two pro-accountability nonprofits presented live demonstrations to Members of Congress, representatives of federal agencies, the media and public. A great deal is interesting work is being done by researchers, startups and SMEs. Hardworking, dedicated people at the Data Transparency Coalition, Sunlight Foundation, Code for America, GitHub, and MySociety, Open Corporates and many others in the UK and Europe are doing pioneering work with open data.

Like the UK ODI, a US ODI requires physical convening space in a central location and cloud-based collaboration infrastructure to:

  1. Provide a central driving strategy blessed by the Executive Branch or Congress (ideally both), guided by the people who know what is possible technically;
  2. Continue to inform, educate and maintain Executive and Congressional support over time;
  3. Provide guidance on how opening data helps achieve agency mission delivery;
  4. Document use cases that include the value proposition and return on investment of open data projects;
  5. Provide space for Meetups where people come together to discuss relevant tools, technologies, standards, projects, accomplishments related to opening government data sets;
  6. Provide a neutral convening ground to facilitate discussion of open data standards, best practices and licenses;
  7. Document, share and extend experience based guidance about the use of Open Source for government use;
  8. Provide an Open Data Directory (website) that helps connect open data developers, Open Source projects, commercial companies, research organizations and government agencies and helps notify people of key events, conferences and advances in the industry;
  9. Serve as a liaison to existing standards organizations and other organizations committed to the long term sustainability of open data initiatives, especially to federal science and technical information (STI) managers; and
  10. Facilitate bringing funders & entrepreneurs involved in open data, working with existing tech incubators and accelerators, to stimulate the U.S. innovation economy.
  11. We are at the beginning of a long road that involves a new way of organizing information, publishing and using it. It may take a decade or more to reach the worthwhile goal of government putting “open data by default” on the Web. A US ODI would be a ‘node in the network’ of the global innovation economy. We must focus on the considerable effort required to open data in a reliable, sustainable and maintainable manner.

A US Open Data Institute would be instrumental in helping to disseminate well considered policy, best practices and international data standards that are critical to our innovation future. I believe we have helpful colleagues at the UK ODI and a precious window of opportunity with bi-partisan support for open federal data. We must seize the opportunity to address pressing local, state, national and global issues today.