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Using open data to solve social challenges

The Open Data Institute has spent the past two years funding startups to build applications that could solve socio-economic problems

Open data could solve a number of social and economic problems, according to the Open Data Institute.

In 2013, the Open Data Institute partnered with not-for-profit organisation Nesta to launch the Open Data Challenge Series (ODCS) to support teams trying to find solutions to social challenges.

As part of the programme, participating startups, small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and entrepreneurs were invited to solve problems in the categories of crime and justice, education, energy and environment, housing, food, heritage and culture and jobs.

Private and public sector open data were used by entrants to create proposed systems and three finalists were chosen to receive £5,000 for further development, with the winner receiving £50,000.  

“We know data is the fuel of open innovation. By providing a clear and structured mentoring environment around fantastic ideas and people, the ODCS team have helped transform them into tangible businesses,” said Gavin Starks, CEO at the Open Data Institute.

“They are creating jobs and bringing new ideas to market that provide social, environmental and economic impact.”

As part of the assessment for the winners, professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) was given the task of assessing the impact of the projects involved, and looked into how each project would influence employment, environment, society and economy and gross value added.

The research predicted that should the startups succeed in their proposed projects as a result of funding, the development of applications to solve social challenges would contribute between 17 and 37 jobs and have a social and economic impact of between £135.7m and £137.2m.

“The costs of programme support to the winners for all seven challenges of around £1.2m is likely to be justified on economic impact grounds alone,” said the report.

“Specifically, every pound invested in the ODCS has the potential to generate between £2.30 and £4.00 of gross value added in net present value terms over three years.”

The winners of the ODCS produced a combination of online services and applications to solve local social problems.

Value of open data to the UK economy

These included a personal online service in the education category called Skills Route that helps children assess their career options, as well as local schools and colleges; an application for social housing tenants to swap houses called Movemaker from the housing category; and an online service called Culture Everywhere under the heritage and culture category, which helps organisations improve social outcomes.

Other winners were Check That Bike, under the crime and justice category, which allows the public to check whether a second-hand bike for sale has previously been stolen; a platform called Community Energy Manager from the energy and environment category, which helps groups to undertake energy improvement projects; Performace in Context, under the jobs category, to help people from under-privilege backgrounds apply for jobs; and FoodTrade Menu from the food category to help restaurants comply with regulations.

“This report shows how startup businesses are creating surprising citizen services with open data that have the potential to be commercially successful,” said Martha Lane Fox, and open data advocate and chair of Go On UK, an organisation that promotes digital skills.

“Demonstrating the value of open data to the UK economy is important – we need buy-in from government, we need businesses to be enthused about not just using, but publishing high-quality data and we need to raise the level of data literacy across all sections of society.”

But some have questioned the real impact of such projects, claiming that hackathons and other “problem-solving” activities often generate ideas, but these proposed systems often lack a workable business plan, making them useless.

The government is increasingly using open data in hackathons as problem-solving initiatives, and recently ran a job hack using open government data to solve the youth unemployment crisis and a flood hack to develop systems to cope with widespread flooding across the UK.

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