UK CIOs who haven't yet much attention to Open Data, should start doing so soon. This holds true for CIOs in the public sector and for those in the private sector. An increasing number of opportunities to access new, valuable information will arise - and by the way, so will pitfalls. [See also: Is open data suitable for the enterprise?]

What exactly is Open Data? According to the Open Data Handbook, which is published by the non-profit UK-based group Open Knowledge, "Open data is data that can be freely used, re-used and redistributed by anyone – subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and share alike."

Open Data advantages

The first set of benefits of open data is derived from information generated or collected by governments. To understand the benefits of government open data, one need only read what the WWW Foundation has to say about why data should be opened up in Africa: "It's to beat corruption, to spark innovation, and to transform government services."

While corruption is less of a problem in industrialised nations, essentially the same three advantages apply to open data around the world. Open data means government information, such as contract awards and funding are made accessible to the public, so we can better scrutinise our elected officials. Open data also means that previously closed data - data on usage patterns of energy services, for example - is now available to private-sector companies with innovative ideas on how to make use of that data to provide useful services. Finally open data means citizens will no longer have to provide the same information about themselves to several different government agencies, because those agencies will be sharing information.

A second set of benefits of open data is derived from information shared between businesses. This too is considered open data, and companies benefit because anonymised data shared between a group of business provides an enhanced view of consumer behaviour.

The UK Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) estimates that an increasing business use of consumer data will benefit consumers, firms, and the wider UK economy. The benefits they expect include lower prices, products that better target consumer needs, advertisement that better targets the consumers that might be interested in a given product, and improvements in purchasing advise for consumers.

That's where things are heading. The idea of sharing data is not new of course. Ever since the late 1950s, the international scientific community has been working towards platforms for sharing information to help stimulate innovation. Many of the barriers to sharing were technological – most of the data wasn't stored in a format that allowed for easy collaboration. But other legal and ethical barriers stood in the way - the biggest has been the questions around intellectual property rights.

Legal minefields and other snags

The biggest pitfall with open data is making sure you adhere to regulations on how data can be used. Most of the regulations are written with the intent to protect the privacy of individuals.

Until recently, with the advent of global connectivity, and with so much data being generated, people hadn't figured out what laws should be applied to information. Who owns information, the people it pertains to or the people who collected it? Who has the right to view a given piece of information? And who has the right to modify it?

The international consensus is that while a lot of new information should be made available, no part of the information should identify individuals. For example, open data might include information on how many people buy certain vitamins, but that data can't provide any indication on who those people are.

There are several ways of hiding the identity of individuals. You certainly don't use names or street addresses. You might also avoid using other details about a person, such as age, gender, and race. Another trick is to aggregate information. You publish the fact that 150 adult males in a small town gave blood in 2014, but you don't indicate which adult males - and you may even mask the blood types of donors.

One problem is that, with clever tools and techniques now available to analyse Big Data, it's not difficult to cross data from more than one source and figure out who the data refers to. The scary bit is that it's not always clear who will be held responsible in the event somebody is identified through pieces of data held by a company.

For example, just a few weeks ago, the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) forced AT&T into a $25 million settlement over a customer data breach at call centres, some of which were located outside the United States in Mexico and the Philippines. Several AT&T employees had leaked information that led to the identification of the names and Social Security numbers of around 280,000 US customers.

Another big pitfall of open data is that open data may not be good data - information may be incomplete, out dated, or downright incorrect. Analysts at Gartner advise IT leaders to proceed with care. While open data might be appealing because it's free, it comes with a set of risks you don't have when you buy syndicated data from information brokers, or if you use the data you collect yourself.

Open Data on a world scale

As long as one understands the risks, and plans accordingly, open data can create new opportunities for UK CIOs. It turns out that the UK is a particularly good place to look for open data opportunities. In January 2015, the World Wide Web foundation published its second annual Open Data Barometer (ODB for short), ranking Open Data initiatives in 100 countries. This latest ODB shows the UK at the number one position in the world for the second time.

The ODB rates countries on several dimensions, including how much data they make accessible, and what laws they implement to restrict access. For two years in a row, the UK, the US, and Sweden have occupied the top three spots in the rankings. But another country to keep an eye on is France, which has jumped from a number 10 ranking to fourth spot, and is gaining momentum.

One of the driving forces behind the World Wide Web Foundation is the founder of the Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who views access to information as a fundamental human right. Berners-Lee says, "If I can get to the web, I should be able to connect to any legal content. I should be able to connect to any other person. And we should start thinking about that as a human right."

According to Berners-Lee, the goal of the foundation is to connect the 80% of the world who aren't currently on the web. He says that getting the rest of the world on the web will introduce new cultures to the existing web culture. We'll see much more of a mix of languages. We'll see different literature. We'll see a huge increase in diversity on the web.

Once the 4.4 billion people get onto the internet for the first time, the next obstacle will be to protect their privacy. Berners-Lee reckons that laws preventing mass online surveillance are weak or non-existent in 84% of the countries. Of these countries, 40% practice censorship to a "moderate or extreme degree."

Berners-Lee also points out that while we tend to think about countries like China and Iran when we think about countries that spy on its citizens on the net, the US and the UK do a lot of spying too - and they do it very well.

But on a more positive note, both the US and the UK governments are committed to stimulating innovation. They see open data is a good way to help companies improve products and services and target customers at a finer level.

A handful of things UK CIOs should do now

So what does all of this meant to UK CIOs? That depends on whether you are in the public sector or the private sector.

Public sector CIOs should proceed with caution, starting out by carefully analysing which data sets they might make available as open data. Gartner says, "The benefits to government to sponsor and maintain an open data program have been indirect and difficult to measure." Analysts at Gartner advise government CIOs to prioritise programmes that will increase government revenue. For example, by making it easier for citizens to pay taxes, governments can expect to collect more tax revenue.

What about CIOs in the private sector? Private sector CIOs should keep an eye on what pubic data is available and think of ways they might use that data. Gartner recommends that CIOs in the private sector, "Use open data to help the business identify new customers, new product/service ideas, develop new business models, or package it as a new revenue stream itself."

But Gartner also warns CIOs to do some risk management: "Plan for the ongoing expense of sourcing, preparing and integrating open data, along with the risks of its discontinued availability or reduced value proposition."

Private sector CIOs should also work with business leaders within their company to find ways of sharing data with other companies. Consultants at McKinsey & Company advise businesses to look for ways of creating consumer value by sharing information.

But McKinsey & Company also warns businesses to make sure they don't reveal too much through the information they share. Don't give away sources of competitive advantage, and don't compromise intellectual property.

CIOs in both the public and private sector should make sure they have the proper security measures in place to protect whatever data they have now and the data they plan to obtain. Make sure you aren't giving out detail that will make it easy for identify individuals.

Finally, CIOs in both the public and private sector should put in place and open data policy to define how they use and share data with outsiders. The policy should cover what data can be obtained and how that data is managed. You don't want to take on more data if you can't secure that data. After all, look what happened to AT&T when their security was deemed insufficient.