Totting up a decade of ones and zeros at the ODI

As the Open Data Institute turns 10, managing director Louise Burke reflects on its first decade and what comes next

In the decade since the Open Data Institute (ODI) opened the doors to its first office in Shoreditch, London, data has gone from a fringe, specialist area of interest to something that everyone understands is surrounding and shaping our world. It is as much a part of our infrastructure as the roads, railways and electricity that we use every day. Data is the lifeblood of businesses, communities and society.

The Covid-19 pandemic has enabled more of us to understand how data can address some of the biggest challenges we face globally. The World Health Organization’s worldwide data gathering on Covid-19 has allowed governments, epidemiologists, clinicians and pharmaceutical companies to track emergent strains of the virus, and to design strategies, vaccines and medicines more effectively. And, of course, all of these insights and findings have been displayed daily on news bulletins and in headlines worldwide.

When Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Sir Nigel Shadbolt co-founded the ODI in 2012, they could not have imagined what lay ahead: from global political upheaval and conflict, to a worldwide pandemic and the challenges and opportunities presented by the UK leaving the European Union.

As the ODI has grown as an organisation, it has contributed to international thinking about the position of open data in the overall data spectrum. As a team, we have worked with companies and governments to build an understanding of what we call the data ecosystem and we have designed and led projects with businesses to enable them to build their understanding of data ethics and data governance.

Data infrastructure

Through our 10 years of work, the ODI has become a part of global data infrastructure. We are pro-innovation and pro-privacy, believing strongly that both concepts can co-exist. We reconcile different interests to work across business and society to the benefit of all. We are margin-generating and mission-driven; a not-for-profit with revenue from the public, private and third sectors.

In the past decade, we have trained more than 50,000 people. We have helped to accelerate 191 startups, small and medium-sized enterprises across 25 countries and seen many of them grow into market leaders. These businesses have created more than 1,000 jobs and generated £100m in revenues during their time engaged with ODI programmes.

We have catalysed or contributed to data-driven policies and approaches in more than 30 public sector bodies including DFT, DFE, Defra, the NHS and several UK catapults, as well as adding to many consultations and calls for evidence. Our work has been cited in dozens of reports and consultations, including in the UK government’s National Data Strategy consultation.

Sustainable behaviour change at global scale

Our ambition has always been for a world where data works for everyone, and we still strive for this. At the ODI, we believe that this can only be achieved through comprehensive and lasting behaviour change. We want to see companies and governments across the world doing better with data. We want citizens and consumers to get a better deal as a result.

During the pandemic, the use and importance of data was propelled into the mainstream. In the UK, the phrase “next slide, please” slipped into our common parlance, where once it would have been saved for conference halls. Graphs, charts and the variations in the “R number” have become prompts for everyday conversations. Even the most misguided of social media arguments involve someone pointing to the “data”.

In the early years of the ODI, we believed, perhaps unreasonably, that social, economic and environmental change could come about through the wide-scale adoption and understanding of open data. We still believe that open data has an enormous role to play. But the world has changed, and we have changed with it.

In that change, we see the potential for huge global value to be built in the development of fair and equitable data use and sharing, whether that is in tackling climate change, eradicating social inequalities or addressing the causes and consequences of war. Data can address all these challenges and more.

Our future work

In our work developing new models of data institutions, we see potential for international organisations across the public and private sector to unlock value. We recently announced our commitment to hosting a data institution for the Open Referral UK data standard. The standard provides a means of describing public and community services so that information can be shared and combined in a way that everyone understands.

In our activities around trust and assurance, we will enable companies and governments to bring standards and structure to data practices that were previously disorganised. Emerging technologies have historically required standards and ethical and/or legal frameworks to bring benefits to society as a whole, as well as engendering trust in those that use them or are subject to their effects.

We continue to think deeply (and differently) about the opportunities and risks ahead, and contribute to the worldwide debate about the role of data in the global community and economy. In 2022, we are continuing our research into the economic value of data. Our previous work has shown that increasing trust in data could have a value of up to 2.5% of GDP. Our dive into the value of data sharing in the private sector revealed many potential benefits – as well as lots of barriers. The ODI sees it as part of its job to help overcome such barriers, challenges and obstacles.

“We want to work with our partners, funders, clients and wider community to effect lasting change”

Louise Burke, ODI

Of course, this being the company founded by two great innovators and thinkers, we are also open to thinking that goes beyond the economic or the obviously practical. Our policy project on Experimentalism and the Fourth Industrial Revolution explores how data policy experts and decision-makers can work in more innovative and experimental ways with data, helping them to adapt to the societal and economic challenges and opportunities around data and digital technologies.

We are ambitious for the years ahead. We want to work with our partners, funders, clients and wider community to effect lasting change. And we want to create a world where data really does work for everyone. We begin our 10th anniversary campaign a decade on from the month when the Open Data Institute was incorporated. Over the next eight months, we will look back at 10 years of data in society, the environment and the economy. We will also look ahead to what future decades might hold, as more data is produced and even greater innovations come about.

Our celebrations will culminate in December – 10 years on from the date we opened for business. Along the way, we will welcome a global audience to our largest-ever annual summit and, at the end of the year, we will publish our strategy for the next five years. 

We start the celebration of our Data Decade with the knowledge that the next 10 years are set to be every bit as exciting and just as intense. I hope that you can join us to see just what that looks like.

Louise Burke is the ODI’s managing director and formerly chief financial officer

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