Open Data – Is Anyone Really Using It?

Over the past four years, there has been an unprecedented push for government transparency at the federal and state levels. The statistics are really quite amazing, considering it’s the government that we’re talking about. There are almost 400,000 raw and geospatial data sets on, including some that leverage semantic web and RDF (resource description framework) technology for linked open data sets. 35 states providing other raw open data sets online ( Many cities and counties are joining in this effort, though some are reticent due to the revenue loss impact by not being able to sell these data sets to data aggregators and research institutions. There are close to 1300 apps that have been created through the use of the federal data sets alone, and cities across the country add to that total with the local hackathons and codeathons that regularly take place.

Data is a critical asset of the governmental ecosystem, and we’re actually seeing governments at all levels (and internationally) making that data available (to the extent that it is permissible and they are able and still be in compliance with federal and state privacy policies). Don’t get me wrong, there is still a lot more that can be – and will be – done, but the past three years have really been momentous.

But, what feels really absent to me in the big data discussions that everyone seems to be so enamored with, is what the private sector is actually doing to incorporate and leverage these governmental open data sets with other “externally” source-able data (in this I include data from credit reporting agencies, data aggregators, social media, etc.). I recently attended the Strata + Hadoop conference in New York City. There were very few government participants. And, I heard very little about how the private sector is using and leveraging open data. While marketing firms for years have used census data, I still struggle to find good examples of how healthcare organizations or banks or logistics companies or energy companies are incorporating and using this data to enrich and add insights to existing data sets they have.

Maybe they are, but just being quiet about it. Or maybe outside the DC beltway, companies aren’t really paying that much attention to what the Feds are doing with its data assets. Or, maybe they don’t trust the quality of the data from the Feds, just like they don’t trust most other things coming from the Federal government.

In some ways, it seems like the Feds have been really promoting these open data efforts. Certainly the start-up community has noticed and continues to churn out new apps to take advantage of these data sets. The “brand” – open data- is certainly locked in and is recognized worldwide.

But what about established companies, of all sizes? Are they getting the message? Do they understand the value in those datasets? Is there anything that can be done to further communicate and message this to the private sector? Do we even care? I don’t have answers, I’m just raising the questions based on my observations.

I guess I am a believer that publishing open data for the sake of being transparent isn’t necessarily all that helpful to anyone other than those organizations and non-profits who are focused on ensuring that “we-the-people” aren’t getting screwed. And certainly, there is some base value in that. But the real leverage points, the real utility of open data is when it can be combined with other data and actually USED to solve problems or answer questions or help companies innovate.

We are still in the early maturity stages of open data and big data. I look forward to the growth in this area, not just from the government side, but from private industry in terms of how they incorporate and leverage open data sets. In the meantime, I will hope that industry really starts to appreciate the value in what government is giving them so freely.   Maybe in this Darwinstic environment in which we live, the companies that get it will leverage the data, drive innovation, and will rise to the top. The others; well, they won’t.