Approximate words of the talk I gave at the EU datathon in November 2017.

Hi, I’m from the Open Data Institute, or ODI. I’ve been asked to do a quick talk before the next panel about “open data and advocacy”. I’ll keep it quick so you can get to the panel and the Q&A. Asking questions is much more fun than listening to a presentation 🙂

We’re a not-for-profit. We work globally, our headquarters are in the UK. We were founded 5 years ago by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web, and Sir Nigel Shadbolt, an AI pioneer. Our mission is knowledge for everyone.

As you might have seen on the first slide it’s our 5th birthday this year. Yay us. So, I want to share a bit about what we’ve learned about advocacy and open data in that time.

First, let’s talk about open data. Open data is vital and incredibly important but if we only talk about and use open data then we can’t deliver our mission. Instead we work across the data spectrum.

the data spectrum

The data spectrum is about access. Who can get to data so they can use it or share it or etcetera. Some data should be kept closed within an organisation, like sales reports. Other data should be shared: the police need to be able to see your driving licence, medical records can help with research, twitter data can help us understand how social media is impacting our societies. Lots of data should be open like bus timetables, maps and addresses.

We need to talk about and use the full spectrum of data if we were to get more open data made available so that anyone can access, use and share it.

The second lesson is about goals. Sometimes it can feel to other people like the goal of the open data movement is only to publish more open data or to put data on portals. That’s the wrong goal.


We think, talk about and use open data as a tool.

A tool that we use to solve problems. Like finding a job that you enjoy, combatting corruption, finding your way around a city, responding to the threat of anti-microbial resistance, helping with house planning and building, or understanding the growth of new sectors and business models like the sharing economy (something we’re looking at in our new R&D programme).

The third lesson is about chance. Chance is great. Very unexpected things happen when you open up data. One of my personal favourites is that the UK government opened up radar data that was originally gathered for planning flood defences and people used it to discover both new places to grow wine and new Roman roads that criss-cross parts of the country. Fantastic. But that doesn’t always work.


We need more focus on creating impact by design. Looking for problems, working with people who are experts in tackling it and getting them the data they need. To move data to the right place on the spectrum. When we do that then chance can also happen, but we also have a much higher chance of impact.

We also learnt that we need to combat the very strange view that data is oil or coal or other types of fossil fuels. I can talk in economic theory about the different qualities of data and oil, but there’s a more important difference. It creates the wrong mentality. People fight over control of oil. They want to hoard it for themselves. They want to sell it for huge amounts of money.


Instead we need to turn data into infrastructure. It is already heading in that direction but we need to strengthen that momentum. Great infrastructure is boring, reliable and safe to use. It’s there when we need it. Data is decades away from being boring, trust me *pause for ironic, self-knowing laughter*, but that’s the direction to head in. Turning data from the public and private sectors into infrastructure that underpins every sector of our economy and societies.

And that infrastructure will be built on a foundation of datasets that are made available as open data, for anyone to access, use and share. That foundation of open data makes it easier to publish and use other data. It’s a powerful way of thinking.

So those lessons are some of the ways we learnt to think — about the full spectrum of data, about data as a tool, about impact by design, and about data as infrastructure. Those mental models have helped our advocacy.

But over the last five years we have also learnt some methods that work to create impact.

We’ve been working with whole sectors to help them use data.

The UK retail banking sector is opening up data about products, locations and cash machines and creating open APIs so that people can choose to share data held about them by banks with people that they trust. We hope it will make it easier for more people to create better services for bank customers. We’re talking to other countries on multiple continents about helping them to make the same change. GODAN (the Global Open Data for Agriculture & Nutrition) initiative that we work with is working globally to open agriculture data to solve problems.


OpenActive is opening up sport data to make people more physically active. Places that offer a whole range of sports: football, squash, badminton, table tennis, running are opening up data and they’re also building an ecosystem of organisations that will use that data to make it easier for more people to play the sports they love.

There are more sectors, like transport, coming together as they start to see the power of working together to solve common problems. We need to encourage sectors to understand and unlock the value of open data by focussing on infrastructure, skills and open innovation.

We’re launching a report next week on the grocery retail sector and GDPR based on consumer research, sector interviews and our thinking about sectors. We want to encourage the retail sector to work together to focus on opportunities, and to use the data they hold in ways that builds trust in shoppers and gives them better services.


As well as sector programmes we work on practical advocacy. Here’s two examples.

  • A set of design patterns for policymakers that use data to help them create impact. While data policy people know data, many other policymakers don’t. We need to reach them and put data into their context, in language they understand and tackling problems they need to solve.
  • A data ethics canvas to help organisations using data understand, openly debate and decide on ethical issues about collecting, sharing and using data. Interestingly when we looked at data ethics we found that most of the debate was about personal data in the closed and shared parts of the data spectrum. People had missed the ethical issues around open data.

We’ve also been working on networks. Peer networks are horizontal organisational structures with members who share similar identities, circumstances or contexts. We run global, African and European peer networks for open data and have seen their power in developing learnings and creating change. We’re learnt from how they have grown and how the people in them interact.


We’ve been seeing peer networks start to emerge in other work they do. Things like ODINE (open data incubator Europe), Datapitch (another Europe-wide startup incubator), and the sector programmes.

We believe that fostering other peer networks: in sectors, in particular disciplines (like policy), or in particular geographies will help build a better future faster. We’ve published a method report that we, or others, can use to do that.


Oh and finally, there’s another vital method. Having fun. Sometimes it can feel like things are moving slowly or in a bad direction and that things will never get better. But just as open is a political statement, we should also be aware that optimism is a political act. Having fun helps me be optimistic. Choosing to be optimistic both helps the day go faster and helps create a better future.

Thank you. I hope this talk and the rest of the event is both fun and useful.