Open data is defined as data that anyone and everyone is allowed to use, modify, analyse and generally have a play with. The idea of making data freely available has been around for a while but large scale government initiatives – both here and across the pond – have really brought it to public attention and now there are thousands of people using open data to do some interesting – sometimes incredible – things. It is even being used to try and tackle the global food shortage.

But aside from making interesting reading what has any of this got to do with you? Surely open data is just for start-ups, market research companies and people that want to save the world? Well there are two reasons why I wanted to dedicate a bit of time to the subject of open data. First, one of the major barriers to internal innovation that I hear about all the time is the inability to use internal data to inform that innovation. This is usually because data is deemed too sensitive, too complex, too siloed or too difficult to make usable. Leaving aside the issues that any of those problems are going to cause for the organisation more generally, it is easy to see how this can create a problem. So why not use someone else's data?

The point of creating internal labs and innovation centres is to explore the art of the possible. I quite agree that insight from your own data is a good place to start but it isn't the only place. You could also argue that by using your own data you are restricting your thinking because you are only looking at information that already relates to your business. If the point of a lab is to explore ideas for supporting the business then you may be better off looking outwards at what is happening in the world around you rather than inwards into the constrained world of the industry you already inhabit.

Let's look for example at the latest innovation to be embraced by BMW. EnLighten is an application that uses the open data produced by digital traffic light signals in cities to advise drivers how to avoid red lights and drive more economically by reduced braking and acceleration. The open data and information is collected from the transport authorities, analysed and then some clever analytics works out which lights are going to change and where. BMW have said that they are going to be integrating the EnLighten system into its in-car satellite navigation. Just another clever idea from a start-up you might think, and yes that is true, but imagine if BMW had come up with that idea themselves? Right now they can be first to market with it but there is nothing to stop EnLighten being sold to every other car manufacturer (in fact I would imagine that is exactly what the owners are hoping for). If it had been created in an internal BMW lab however it would be theirs alone. This application is based on data from traffic lights that is freely available to anyone that wants it.

The fact is there is vast amounts of data sets that are freely available that can be made to work for you if you can just apply the creativity and technical smarts to them.

My second point is less about open data than about opening up data. Organisations collect information on their business operations, customers and suppliers all the time. The smart ones know how to use it to build competitive advantage but the really smart ones also know that there is significant extra value to be gained from sharing that data with the customer or supplier that it relates to. The customer or supplier can then use it to make informed decisions themselves. Some organisations have been doing this for a while. Customers of First Direct have been able to analyse their own spending patterns for years (although the data has been somewhat limited). The benefit to the customer is that they can make informed decisions based on actual data about their past behaviours and so adapt their spending habits accordingly (or put their head firmly in the sand and carry on as before in my case!). The benefit to the bank is that they are able to suggest ideas for how to improve a customer's financial health alongside the data. Others have looked at how they can help customers by sharing (anonymised) information about what people with similar lifestyles/needs are doing/buying so customers can learn from each other. Trials have shown that customers welcomed the insight.

It would be fascinating to be able to analyse your interactions with different businesses over time. What insights does your annual supermarket trolley hold? What types of clothing purchases am I most likely to return? Are there patterns that could help save me money or inform my behaviour moving forwards? Getting access to that type of information would make me more knowledgeable but also give me what I need to get the most out of my relationships with the companies that give it to me.

There are of course concerns in some quarters about the danger of data being leaked or hacked but putting data in lock down won't solve this. Better cyber security will help but to a certain degree it is a risk that we all take these days. Nobody wants to be the next Ashley Madison but at the same time data can no longer be something that companies bury.

Data is more accessible and more usable than ever before. The old barriers have been removed as new technologies and platforms have arrived and the time and cost associated with data have come down dramatically. Fundamentally organisations need to change the way they think about data and extend their horizons. We have a tendency to think of it as something to be hoarded, to be kept away from prying eyes. We also tend to have very regimented ideas about what data is relevant to us and what isn't. If we are going to get real value out of the data that is around us then this will have to change.