March 15, 2012

Beyond Open Data

Charting a Course to Best-in-Class Capabilities

As technology advances, our capacity to collect, share, and manipulate data is growing exponentially. In the private sector, many organizations are developing innovative ways to use data to transform their business models and unlock significant new sources of value. From conducting more sophisticated customer segmentation to overhauling recruitment, an organization’s ability to exploit data is becoming a critical source of competitive advantage.

In the public sector, governments control a large and ever-increasing amount of data about citizens, public services, and the world around us. From individual health records and school league tables to weather maps and economic statistics, the range of government data is diverse and the potential uses of those data are enormous. Like private organizations, governments face the challenge of getting the most out of their data—in this case, for the greater good.

Until recently, government data were for the most part jealously guarded, available only to those with privileged access. But with the advent of the “open data” movement, governments have been subject to mounting public pressure to freely release more data to citizens and corporations. (See “The Rise of Open Data.”) The movement is heralding a shift in governments’ relationship with data—from being a gatekeeper, ensuring that data are securely stored, to becoming a steward, safeguarding data for others. Proponents of open data argue that sharing raw public data is the key to unlocking their value. But while this push for transparency and accountability is commendable, it provides no guidance on other pressing issues, such as which data sets governments should collect in the first place or how they should manage sensitive or personal information.

Indeed, the current debate about the public’s role in government data threatens to overshadow an equally important issue: how data can be better used by government to improve outcomes. We believe that, instead of focusing solely on whether or not to release data publicly, governments must also ask themselves a more fundamental question: How can they maximize the value of government data for society? In some cases, releasing vast data sets may serve this purpose. But in many instances, changes to how governments themselves use the data are likely to deliver the greatest impact.

To begin with, governments need to adopt a more strategic approach to the way they collect and use data.

The Rise of Open Data

In recent years, a variety of organizations and political movements have emerged with the mandate to improve government accountability by making data more publicly available. Many governments have responded by unleashing oceans of stored data.

In the U.S., the Obama administration has pioneered the development of, a central Web portal for government data sets, and is promoting greater transparency throughout federal agencies. The U.K., France, Australia, and New Zealand have also set strong objectives to integrate open data into their governments’ technology strategies, and each has launched an open-data portal.

The European Commission has recently launched an open-data strategy for Europe, which it expects will deliver an annual €40 billion boost to the EU’s economic growth. It is opening its vaults of information to the public for free through a new data portal, and it is backing the effort with €100 million to fund research into improved data-handling technologies.

Among NGOs, the World Bank publishes extensive data and visualization tools focused on health outcomes and systems in developing countries.