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The UK needs a data infrastructure

Public data needs to be open and protected, and should be treated as part of our critical national infrastructure

Human societies change when resources become either plentiful or scarce. The agrarian revolution saw food become available at a scale and with a reliability never seen before. The industrial revolution saw manufactured goods become available at levels and at costs not previously seen.

We are now in the midst of a data revolution. Data is following the same path as food and manufactured goods before it.

However, data is not like food or manufactured goods. Those resources are rivalrous – if you consume them or buy them they are no longer available to anyone else. One of the greatest challenges of the modern world is how to distribute resources equitably and to use them sustainably.

When we build our infrastructures for the 21st century – energy and transport, housing and agriculture – we worry about how we will afford them, make them available and do so in a way that does not diminish resources for future generations.

The data revolution does not play by these rules. At the Open Data Institute (ODI), we have been working to promote the use of data at web scale to support open innovation, providing knowledge for everyone.

Data does not have to be a rival good. Your possession of it does not detract from my possession of it. If you use it then it does not become unusable by me.

Of course, we can set up payment and protection systems around data and we must protect people’s privacy. But at the ODI, we have been showing the benefits of a data infrastructure that is as open as possible. Certain data has maximal use and value the more widely it is shared and used.

A new public infrastructure

Data is a new class of public infrastructure for the 21st century. It is all around us and easy to miss. We need to view it as an infrastructure that is as fundamental to modern society as power and transport, and which requires investment, curation and protection.

Data is an infrastructure which, engineered correctly, can generate extraordinary amounts of economic and social value.

The recent Engineering a better world conference, hosted by the Royal Academy of Engineering, highlighted this value, looking at the importance of open data and collaborative innovation in driving efforts to improve quality of life and prosperity globally.

Projects, such as open access monitoring of water provision quality to soil analysis to improve farming practices for better food security, are vital in accelerating development – and these are just the start.

To maximise value, the data infrastructure must be open and used by as many people as possible
Nigel Shadbolt, ODI

When the human genome was first sequenced in 2000, there was a race to patent that data. It took a 2013 judgement of the US Supreme Court to rule that the genome could not be patented. The value that has accrued from that decision has eclipsed a monopolistic assignment of genomic data to a particular organisation.

When Transport for London (TfL) made its transport data openly available in 2010, it had a transformational impact on the data ecosystem – a flowering of apps and companies using that data to provide services that we all use as we get around one of the great cities of the world more efficiently.

Those apps and companies now form part of a global market as transport services worldwide open up their data to a common standard. Moreover, TfL calculated that its decision had a return of investment of 58:1. These examples demonstrate that open data generates huge economic returns.

Open data initiatives

We believe that part of the duty of a modern state is to provide open data infrastructure and promote open standards to make them globally interoperable. We are beginning to see in the open data initiatives worldwide what this common public data infrastructure might look like.

Geospatial data, such as administration regions, maps and addresses, is a vital building block for open data infrastructure. Everything happens somewhere.

Lists of legal entities (both public and private sector), company directors and beneficial ownership registers help us link data together and understand which organisation is responsible for particular activities.

Meanwhile, specific sectors have their own infrastructural needs. Health needs list of hospitals, surgeries, practitioners and procedures. Transport needs rail and bus stations, airports, timetables, fares and real-time travel information. Democracy needs lists of elections, results, candidates and places where people can vote.

In each case, research and experience shows us that to maximise value the data infrastructure must be open and used by as many people as possible.

Data infrastructure is an asset that needs to be invested in. It needs to be curated to make sure that the data is as up-to-date and accurate as needed. Data needs to be protected from abuse by bad actors and, in many cases, recognised as critical national infrastructure. It needs to be designed for openness and the global web of data.

We need to encourage agility and open innovation in both how the data is maintained and how it’s used. An effective, efficient and equitable data infrastructure will generate value for this and succeeding generations.

Read more about open data

Nigel Shadbolt is chairman and co-founder of the Open Data Institute.

Read more on Data quality management and governance