Interview: ODI unpacks plans for three-year data odyssey

Open Data Institute head of policy Peter Wells talks PublicTechnology through the organisation’s plans for investing its new £6m package of government funding


Anyone with even the most passing of interests in government, public services, or technology will, over the last few years, have noticed an exponential increase in the use of the word ‘data’.

It can be structured, open, blended, or raw. However you take yours, data is pretty big these days.

And it is only getting bigger, as an ever-greater volume and variety of data is produced by a burgeoning array of sources – from smartphones to hyperscale datacentres. What is more, data is no longer a collection of artefacts, but a living ecosystem that shifts and evolves, according to Peter Wells, head of policy at the Open Data Institute (ODI).

“We spent the last 25 years building the web of documents, we are now moving to a web of data, and a world where all these devices are creating data,” he says. “And now is the right time to use data to solve problems and challenges – we have proven a lot of the impact [that it can have].” 

The organisation will have the opportunity to make an even bigger impact with a recently announced £6m package of funding from Innovate UK, a government innovation agency backed by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Wells says the money – and the initiatives that it will be used to fund over the next two and a half years – “is a great thing for the UK data scene” that could have a “transformational” impact on citizens’ and consumers’ relationship with data.

Co-founded in 2012 by artificial intelligence specialist Sir Nigel Shadbolt and inventor of the world wide web Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the ODI is an independent not-for-profit organisation dedicated to helping businesses and the private sector drive data innovation. To which end it will receive £2m every year or so from Innovate UK between now and 2020. This money will be invested across six key projects identified by the ODI.

The first of these is to improve the process of data publishing, and the tools used to do so. 

“A lot of people find it painful to publish data,” Wells says.

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The project will, he adds, try to understand from where that pain is derived, and how the ODI can help develop and promote effective open-source data-publishing tools.

The second project is dedicated to making it easier to create open standards for data. The ODI will research how existing standards are developed and supported. According to Wells, the ODI does not wish to act as a regulator, handing down standards from above. But rather intends to encourage data-processors and standards bodies to embrace an open model, and formulate standards through developing best practice.

“Open standards typically come from a combination of organisations who are actually using the data… It is always by all parts of the community coming together,” he adds. “What we are doing in that project is sharing their lessons and practices.”

If it is personal data, those people need to be engaged as part of the conversation

The head of policy points to banking and sports as two areas that serve as good examples of how open standards have been created and maintained by industry participants.

The third project on the ODI’s agenda will see the organisation exploring new service-delivery models that could be deployed in the public sector. As part of this project, the ODI will work on initiatives with four yet-to-be-identified local councils, as well as the commercial and third-sector partners of each authority.

“We are doing research into service-enabled delivery – we will be looking into the barriers [to it],” Wells says. “We will be producing some learning material to share.”

The art of the possible
Part of the ODI’s mission over the coming three years will be to help understand – and, hopefully, eradicate – the misgivings public-sector organisations currently have about sharing data, and the other obstacles that prevent them doing so.

“There are a classic set of barriers. Part of the issue is that organisations do not know how to do it successfully, and are worried about damaging trust,” Wells says. “Part of the reason is cultural, and not even knowing it is possible. Some of the work we do is showing the art of the possible. Some organisations have problems around the organisational models. And some of it is technical.”

Wells adds: “It is always hard [to overcome those barriers] – and it needs to be done with [citizens] as well. If it is personal data, those people need to be engaged as part of the conversation.”

The fourth project on the ODI’s agenda will bring together representatives of government, business, think tanks, and consumer groups to look at how data is used in the burgeoning peer-to-peer accommodation sector, where members of the public offer short-term rental of properties they own  – such as Airbnb. 

The penultimate ODI project aims to help businesses get to grips with and make better use of data-focused technology in four different areas: artificial intelligence; blockchain; personal data; and geographic data clusters in the UK.

Amount of funding the ODI has received from Innovate UK

Percentage of the ODI’s work over the next two and a half years that will be contracted to external bodies

March 2020
End date of the six projects being funded by the £6m investment

Five years
Length of time the ODI has been in operation, during which it claims to have “unlocked over £80m in value” for businesses and public bodies

The final project the ODI is undertaking will be dedicated to fostering improved collaboration in the data space between the UK and France. This will include a summit in France in March, the second time the ODI has held such an event, following a gathering in London earlier this year. 

The organisation will also be examining how local authorities in both countries can engage with counterparts on the other side of the channel.

“We are looking at a twinning programme, and how can we help them work together,” Wells says.

He concludes that the content of the programmes will evolve over time.

“This is research and development. Some of these projects might not work, and then we will start new ones,” he says.

Which seems like another way of saying that we will be hearing a lot more about data for some time to come.


Sam Trendall

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