‘Open Data Now’ author Joel Gurin on how businesses and government are building the data economy

Joel Gurin
Photo courtesy of Joel Gurin

What compelled you to write this book?

My interest in the public uses of data goes way back. For over a decade I was the editorial director and then executive vice president of Consumer Reports, where we developed our own expert data to help consumers make important decisions. Then a few years ago I went to the Federal Communications Commission as chief of the consumer bureau, where we tried to figure out how to use data about cellphone plans to improve consumer choice. That work led to my chairing the White House Task Force on Smart Disclosure – the term we used for releasing data to help consumer decision-making – and that, in turn, got me interested in open data more broadly.

As I started talking to dozens of people in government, business and nonprofits, I realized that we’re in the middle of an open data revolution that’s starting to change our society.

The heart of it is the open government data that’s now being released in increasingly valuable ways. I wrote Open Data Now to document this new open data movement, show how it’s creating new business opportunities, and encourage government agencies to make even more government data available.

What is the Open Data 500 study and why is it important?

The Open Data 500 study – which I’m leading at the GovLab at NYU, where I am senior advisor – is the first comprehensive study of companies that use open government data as a key business resource. We set out last fall to see whether we could find 500 of these companies, far more than anyone had documented before. We found them and we researched them – 190 filled out the surveys we sent them, and we learned about the rest from public sources.

We’ve found a tremendous diversity of companies in 15 different categories (such as healthcare, finance and energy), operating all over the country, using different revenue models and different kinds of government data. Perhaps most important, we’ve been able to map the connections between government agencies and the companies that use their data. If you explore the Open Data Compass on the home page of OpenData500.com, you’ll see what we’ve learned. Our next step is to use this understanding to help government agencies and businesses work together to use data more effectively.

What are the key challenges to getting data open?

Government officials have compared the state of federal data to that last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark – it’s like a warehouse filled with unlabeled crates that contain treasure somewhere, but nobody knows where. That may be an overstatement, but it’s not far off. A lot of data is trapped in legacy systems – there are an  estimated 10,000 data systems in the federal government – that are hard to use and are not interoperable with each other. The Obama administration’s Open Data Policy requires agencies to make almost all their data open and machine-readable, but that’s a very tall order.

At the GovLab, we think we can help by building on the results of the Open Data 500 study. The key is prioritization. Rather than trying to open up all the data at once, what if we identify the 10 percent of an agency’s datasets that may hold 90 percent of the public value and make those really usable first? The GovLab is now planning to convene and facilitate a series of Open Data Roundtables that will bring companies to the table with the agencies that provide their data. We want to help them work together so they can figure out the best Open Data strategies. The Department of Commerce has been especially enthusiastic and will help us plan the first Roundtable; Labor, Transportation, Treasury and the USDA have also committed to participate in the future.

Who’s doing open data right?

The Department of Commerce does seem to be a leader here; their data from NOAA and Census is especially widely used. More companies in our study use data from Commerce than from any other federal department, and Commerce is the only one that serves companies in all 15 categories we studied. Health and Human services was an early Open Data leader and keeps releasing datasets with high impact, like the new data that names and sometimes shames individual Medicare providers. Other departments and agencies, like the ones who have signed on for our Roundtables, are also doing increasingly exciting open data work.

You highlight great examples of how open data has fostered new business models and empowered economic growth. What are some of your favorite examples that highlight this?

Everyone talks about the Climate Corporation, which was just sold to Monsanto for about a billion dollars. I’ve been following them for over a year, and was lucky to interview their CEO, David Friedberg, for my book and my website OpenDataNow.com; you can read the interview in print or online and hear a podcast of it on my website as well. But it’s not just the big companies like this that are proving the economic value of open data. After all, we’ve just published information on 499 more of them.

If I had to choose, I’d highlight the companies that are using open data not just to build their business, but to provide a social benefit. I think it’s something about the nature of open data, but I’ve noticed that a lot of open data companies are doing well by doing good. We have healthcare companies that are helping people find better post-hospital care and better, affordable healthcare overall. Energy-focused companies are using open data to reduce energy use and carbon emissions, while consumer shopping applications help people choose products with a low carbon footprint. Financial websites and apps, powered by open data, help consumers protect their credit ratings and help small businesses get loans more easily. In education, new startups are helping college-bound students figure out how to get the most return for the money they’ll spend on education.

When we talk about the economic benefit of open data, we have to remember the social benefit as well. The good news is that the two are closely connected – and we can expect to see a lot more companies that will generate value on many levels.

About Luke Fretwell

Luke Fretwell is the founder of GovFresh. He is also co-founder and CEO of ProudCity. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn or email at luke@govfresh.com.

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