Creating the next wave of social open-data products

Open Data programme managers address the challenges of creating socially focused open-data products

For all of the excitement and commitment around open data, there can sometimes be disillusionment and disappointment about the lack of concrete use cases and credible products developed, write Briony Phillips and Ed Parkes.

The agenda has, until recently, been characterised by lots of good will and activity, mostly focused on weekend hackathons to create open data - publishing data without a restrictive licence and for free. But these hackathons can produce ideas which, in the cold light of day, seem unfinished and lacking an underlying business plan. A sufficiently thought-through business model can be particularly challenging, as the funding models are not always straightforward.

Recognising this, charitable organisation Nesta and the Open Data Institute, funded by The Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) and its agency InnovateUK (formerly the Technology Strategy Board), have developed the Open Data Challenge Series (ODCS). This is a series of seven challenge prizes to generate innovative and sustainable open data answers to social challenges. The partnership blends a challenge prize methodology – putting up a monetary prize to solve a problem, such as the recently launched Longitude Prize, also run by Nesta – with a lean startup approach, where teams quickly iterate their ideas driven by a detailed understanding of user needs. The aim here is to deliver a process which supports teams through the stages they’d need to navigate as an early-stage startup, with the aim for the winner to have developed a prototype of a product with a clear business plan underpinning it.

Social themes

Each challenge starts with a high-level socially focused theme – such as housing or heritage and culture – where the team sets out making clear the types of issues which need addressing in this area and the relevant open data available. From this we develop, in collaboration with the community, a specific question which we feel addresses user needs as well as having some open data available already.

Following the announcement of the specific question – for our Housing Open Data Challenge we asked, “How can we use open data to help people get the best out of renting?” – we commission detailed user research through our partnership with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and the strategic consultancy Uscreates. This work is designed to give teams a head start in developing their ideas, by making clear what data is available and the broad user needs to be addressed. In a sense, we’re open-sourcing the early work that a startup would naturally do in their scoping and research phase.

Training, research and development

From then on we support teams by providing them with training on how to elaborate their social impact and undertake user research, through a series of meetings. Teams post their initial ideas online so others can see them and potentially join their team. From these ideas we select the strongest to invite along to our Creation Weekend, where teams spend an intense period further developing their product or service, which culminates in pitching on the Sunday afternoon. A panel of judges select the three most impressive teams, who then receive £5,000 funding and a package of support to further develop their product. After a further couple of busy months, the team with the strongest proof of concept – as identified by the judges – receives £40,000 to further develop and launch their product.

In the case of our most recent Housing Open Data Challenge, the three finalists in the running for the final prize are developing products and services that respond to a specific challenge question – “How can we use open data to help people get the best out of renting?” – in a variety of ways. All the ideas are innovative and have open data at their heart; we also ask participants to demonstrate how their product/service will deliver social impact and what their plans are to achieve sustainability for the future.

Food Challenge deadline

We’re constantly revising our support and approach on the basis of feedback but we’ve had a great response from the teams who have come through the challenges. We’ve awarded three winners and we’re half way through our Housing Challenge with the deadline for people to post their ideas for the Food Challenge on Monday 27th October 2014. Our aim is to help support a new cadre of open data products and services, with a stronger chance of surviving.

Briony Phillips and Ed Parkes are Open Data Challenge Series programme managers - to find out more about the Open Data Challenge Series and to sign up for its newsletter please visit the Nesta website. The next Challenge will be on Heritage and Culture and will be launched on Tuesday 4th November at the ODI summit

Read more on IT for government and public sector