How Open Data Advocates Can Work with the Private Sector

Over the past several years, the benefits of open data for the private sector have become more and more evident. Private-sector companies are using open data to improve their operations, launch new products and services, and innovate in many ways that have economic benefits. At the same time, it’s now clear that private-sector companies can make a great contribution to the open data ecosystem by sharing their own datasets. But despite the potential in both directions, there are still gaps between government open data providers, open data advocates, and businesses with common interests in data.

My organization, the Center for Open Data Enterprise (CODE), has worked for several years to bring data providers, advocates, and businesses together to find new ways to use data for the common good. At the recent International Open Data Conference in Buenos Aires, members of CODE moderated a session on open data and the private sector, led a discussion on the topic at the OD4D Network Summit before the conference, and participated in several other sessions, panels, and conversations. These discussions surfaced a number of ideas and principles that can help data stewards and advocates engage the private sector for good.

Open Data and the Private Sector session at IODC18

Invite businesses to help prioritize government data that will be useful to them. The Open Data for Business (OD4B) business tool, which CODE developed with the World Bank, has been used in several countries to engage the private sector in setting open data priorities at a national level. A recent OD4B assessment conducted in Argentina, using surveys and a roundtable, demonstrated a strong interest from the Argentine government in learning what data the private sector wants and also found that 80% of the business participants in the OD4B wanted to collaborate with the government. To make the process manageable, it may be valuable to focus on just one or two sectors: the Argentina OD4B studied only data on financial services and agriculture.

Engage the private sector in filling government data gaps. In many cases, private companies may have data that is more accurate, more timely, or in other ways better than government data on the same subject. For example, a telecom company in Kenya collects weather data from its stations that could be used to help improve government weather information. There are a growing number of examples where private-sector data can supplement official statistics, as long as the strengths and limitations of each kind of data are made clear.

Explore data collaboratives, anonymization, and other approaches to data sharing. Over the last three years, the GovLab at NYU has developed this approach through its Data Collaboratives project. The goal has been to tap into corporate data to unlock value and improve people’s lives. Data collaboratives make it possible to create a trusted structure for businesses to share insights from their data without revealing proprietary data or trade secrets.

Others have worked with individual companies that have found ways to share specific datasets with particularly high public value. In some countries, telecom companies have anonymized their data so that it can be analyzed and used for the public good without revealing private information. In Argentina and Mexico, for example, researchers have combined mobile phone data with government data to identify migration patterns the help determine the risk of Chagas disease in different areas. This infectious insect-borne disease affects more than a million people in Argentina but only a tiny fraction of those infected are diagnosed and receive treatment.

Work with the private sector on data challenges and hackathons. Private-sector companies and governments have a common interest in seeing government open data put to use. For the government ministries, improving the use of data is an important part of their mission. For technology companies, demonstrating the value of data can increase demand for their hosting, analytic, or other services. In Argentina, IBM has hosted hackathons and data challenges to identify new ways to use data and get insights about the data itself.

Understand how businesses use and publish data in very different ways. There is no “one size fits all” approach to working with the private sector, because businesses have very diverse needs for data and equally diverse opportunities for sharing data. For example, the London-based Open Data Institute has identified a number of ways in which businesses publish data for public use. Some function as intermediaries to publish existing data in more usable forms; some contribute data through data philanthropy to help solve global problems; some publish data because the government requires them to; and some publish useful data without even realizing it. Any collaboration with business must begin by understanding exactly what that company’s needs and data-sharing capabilities are.

These insights and examples, from Argentina and around the world, help demonstrate the potential for the open data community to work with the private sector more closely. There are many strategies for doing so, and none will be applicable to every situation. But the basic message for the open data community is clear: We should engage, communicate, and collaborate.

Joel Gurin is president of the Center for Open Data Enterprise (CODE), a Washington-based nonprofit whose mission is to maximize the value of open government data as a public resource. He is a co-author of the Private Sector chapter in State of Open Data.

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