There is a lot talked about data – Big Data (and now small data), data analytics, data scientists, data management, etc, etc. I hate to be one to jump on a bandwagon - and a pretty old one at that - but there is one element to all this data chat that really fascinates me, and that is the subject of data sets and how they are being opened up and made freely available to anyone who wants to use them.
Let's take transport data as an example. Recently Transport for London made the brave (some said foolish) decision to publish its data on the internet and allow other organisations to use it. Why would any organisation want to make its data freely available? Surely that's dangerous? Are you not opening yourself up to scrutiny and criticism (at the very least)?
To answer that question let's look at what actually happened. The biggest impact was that a plethora of useful consumer tools appeared – developed and launched by small start-ups and built on the data that was made available. These included tools like Tube Tracker, which tells you when the next tubes are due across the network; the London Bus Checker, which does basically the same thing for buses. The knock on effect for TfL was that their users now have access to a host of tools to help them make better use of their services. Good for the consumers, good for the start-ups and great for TfL.
What TfL realised is that they were never going to have the time, the money or the expertise to come up with tools like this on their own. There was in fact far more advantages to making this data available to people who could, than in being what Tim Berners Lee referred to as a 'data hugger'.
OK, so perhaps you can see that working for the public sector. After all they don't really have competitors as such and they are tasked with getting the most for the tax payers' buck - but what about companies in the private sector?
As part of my research for this article I spoke to John O'Donovan, CTO at the Financial Times. He believes that for companies in the private sector there is considerable value in opening up data to ensure that the most value is derived from it.
"New data of all kinds is very valuable to companies but as soon as it is updated its value in itself diminishes. At that point the value switches from the data to the links between it and other data points, something that most companies don't have the time and resources to fully exploit," explains O'Donovan.
"Lots of media companies including the FT as well as others such as ESPN are now making older data available to developers through APIs enabling them to combine it with other data points – effectively recycling it. In an industry that now has to find new and more interesting ways to capture consumers attention (and deliver something consumers feel is worth paying for) the ability to use one set of data in multiple ways is very valuable – even if it is someone else that's actually doing it for you."
Of course it's not just about handing your data over to the clever start-ups. Increasingly organisations are looking to data scientists to help them make more of the data that they have available to them – internal and external. The problem is that without a clear idea of what you are looking for, or what questions you are looking to address companies can spend an awful lot of money on lots of very pretty diagrams that are fundamentally irrelevant to their business.
Let's take the education sector as an example. If you are a university then identifying the patterns that determine how successful a student is likely to be is very valuable to you when it comes to increasing student success rates.
"Juan Lopez-Valcarel, Chief Digital Officer of our parent company Pearson often uses the example of the work that has been done around trying to predict early whether students will pass or fail. Analytics across different data sets have revealed that it is possible to predict this with a very high degree of accuracy when they are only 10% of the way through their course," says O'Donovan.
"This is hugely valuable to any educational institution as it gives them the insight to help them target students who are on the wrong track and set them right early on. However this was only possible because the right question was asked in the first place which was how can we identify students that are struggling and set them on the right course early enough to make a difference?"
The subject of data sets and their value is one I am looking to explore further in my next article, since for individuals who are the guardians of insight and information, this should play a critical part in the CIO's thinking moving forward. It is a subject championed by groups like the Open Data Institute (ODI) who believe that open access to data benefits both the society and the economy.
Data has enormous potential in terms of competitive advantage but in many cases it is far more about freeing it up than about guarding it and finding the most effective way to do this is a valuable part of the CIO's role.