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Uses for open data

I’m often asked these days why people would bother with open data. (Here, I’m using LinkedGov’s definition of open data.)  I thought it would be useful to write down and gather some feedback, see if we can refine these categories further.

Thus far, it seems, the uses are boiling down to four categories:

1.  Transparency

Broadly speaking, this means getting a better view of what is going on inside government or the public sector.  This audience covers both the non-public sector and the public sector itself.


  • Infrastructure:  Transport timetables, traffic information or road potholes for a journey planner app
  • Accountability:  Financial and budget statements for armchair auditors
  • Media:  Potential headlines and stories for journalists
  • Sharing information resources:  Formal research available to inform academic and professional enquiries (for example, data from NHS clinical studies informing projects hosted by universities or industry). This group also includes management and demographic statistics, like the number of people in a particular benefits programme
  • Status and progress updates: performance data, such as the number of outcomes met in a specific project
  • News: announcements about public sector activities, grant opportunities and new ways to interact with government
  • Community information:  local planning applications, crime statistics or upcoming events which impact a neighbourhood

2.  Delivering services to/on behalf of government

Open data allows commercial and third sector organisations to have a closer relationship with customers and funding sources in government and the public sector.


  • Delivering front-line services on behalf of a governmental or public body:  As an example, the train operating companies might benefit from greater access to forecasts of passenger activity from Transport for London.
  • Marketing to government:  If a photocopier sales department can see which public sector offices are likely to need a new photocopier soon, they can target their marketing appropriately.

3.  Improving commercial activities outside of government

Many existing business models could benefit significantly from greater access to public data.  A few examples:

  • Smoothing commercial transactions. A tool for selecting the ideal import tariffs or a faster route of calculating tax could provide significant savings for a commercial goods company.
  • Enhancing an existing offering.  A tour operating company could plan more accurately (or prompt their clients to plan better) with weather data from the Met Office.
  • Targeting marketing.  Census data and council tax bands, for example, could help a new company work out where its target market is, helping them to concentrate their comms efforts in the most efficient place

4.  Efficiency

Much of the public sector could benefit from better access to their data and the information contained within it.  Examples include:

  • Procurement:  Comparing costs and existing contracts when looking at procurement for something new.
  • Evidence base: Better informed policy development and decision-making
  • Reducing the load: Less enquiries from the public (specifically requests under the Freedom of Information Act) and from within the public sector (for example, parliamentary questions from ministers to civil servants in their department).

What are your thoughts?  How can we refine this model and make it more complete?

6 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. 1

    Hey Hadley,

    I think there are two questions in here. One is what reasons do people give for being interested in open data. The other is what impacts does it have.

    Focussing on the civic uses of open data (i.e. ignoring economic benefits) I found three broad ways open data has impacts here:

    Those aren’t necessarily ‘benefits’ of open data – but at least spaces it affects things (See also some of the less obvious ways it affects things: ).

    Trying to use that to refine your categories, I think you would need to narrow the current ‘Transparency’ category which seems to mix timetables / traffic information / potholes for an app (data for utility to citizens), with transparency for accountability.

    I’d suggest categories of:

    – Transparency and accountability (data can let people hold government to account; more actors can enter the scrutiny process; councillors and officers can be empowered as well as citizens)

    – Internal efficiency for government (data flows better inside the organisation, and with outside partners; co-creation works better; serendipitous connections can be made; procurement can be more effective; innovations can be easier shared when working from standard open data; the market for provision of services to government is changed; feedback loops help improve data – and highlight data that is or isn’t needed; government can use consumer tools for analysing data outside the firewall)

    – Utility for citizens / consumers (new and better interfaces on public service are created; entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs can build on government data to provide useful things that people need; long-tail solutions can emerge that the state could never have supported)

    – Innovation and economic growth (people can economically exploit data for competitive advantage; data can help target marketing; enterprises can create new services with data, or add value by combining data with existing services; a focus on linked data stimulates the UK to take a leading role in this growing technological area – data acts as the catalyst for new skills and businesses) etc.

  2. S #

    What strikes me about this list, is that there’s nothing in this list that couldn’t have been written a year ago. And while that is good and it hits the points that needed hitting then, it does feel a bit like it’s not doing much.

    I’m not sure that is particularly what “Uses for open data” should be. the borisbike apps is canonical and done to death, but it is an excellent example of things that make the service more useful.

    Hopefully when spending data starts coming out, there’ll be some consideration given to why some areas spend huge amounts on something, and others little, when you’ve controlled for the different types of area. There are a few (there was one from the taxpayer’s alliance which looked at road salt prices – some disparities are expected, but some were just bad contracts). is probably another example of transparency being useful to a group, and highly useful to a specific subset (lawyers).

    but in summary, I’ve read this a few times, and I’m still not sure that this is necessarily the best of examples.

    It’s all about the what, and nothing about the why. I’m not sure that you necessarily answer the question you asked, or the question you meant to ask.

  3. Hadley Beeman #

    Thanks, you two. Good comments!
    Tim, you bring up a number of useful points. I do take your distinction between transparency and accountability; I suppose I have been thinking of it as an information flow view (one-way flow from inside government outwards), but you are right that they are different activities.
    As usual, your insightful comments are also challenging me to think about what assumptions I’ve made. I suspect part of my framework has come from a separation of audience groups, rather than just activities with the data.
    I’ll play with the categories you have suggested; I imagine (hope!) this should be an ongoing conversation.
    S, what question did you think I meant to ask? :) I wrote this piece in response to many people asking “Who is really going to use this stuff? Is it worth it?” It would appear that you’ve spent much more time thinking about this, and for longer, than many who are newer to the table. I apologise though for not putting a clearer heading on the post, which might have prevented that confusion.

  4. Sam #

    “is it worth it?” feels like a different formulaion of a question – and not the same thing i think you answered; and i’m not sure you’d have answered it that way…

  5. 5

    From perspective of getting governments to provide open data (I’m a tech worker in a city govt),I’d say don’t sweat it if some of the reasons have been around for years. Repetition helps get ideas into management’s collective head.

    You can make the list more persuasive by adding hyperlinks to examples when possible. Examples tend to find their way into emails and conversations, and can be influential as a result.

  6. 6

    Several things I find problematic with “Open Data” concerns both its relevance and integrity. It was years ago that spook agencies saw a great potential for collecting open source data from ever expanding networks–and that’s before the Internet–as you probably know it. Hint, I’m an old guy.

    It is in the Information Warfare battke space that opportunities to use and project false and misleading information in order to generate whatever outcome or trigger some asymmetric event to support or achieve whatever nation state/organization/individual goal or objective that is desired.

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