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Meet the UK start-ups changing the world with open data

(By Sophie Curtis, 28Jun 2014) The ‘open data’ movement in the UK has prompted the creation of a cluster of new businesses

Data is more accessible today than anyone could have imagined 10 or 20 years ago. From corporate databases to social media and embedded sensors, data is exploding, with total worldwide volume expected to reach 6.6 zettabytes by 2020.

Open data is information that is available for anyone to use, for any purpose, at no cost. For example, the Department for Education publishes open data about the performance of schools in England, so that companies can create league tables and citizens can find the best-performing schools in their catchment area.

Governments worldwide are working to open up more of their data. Since January 2010, more than 18,500 UK government data sets have been released via the web portal, creating new opportunities for organisations to build innovative digital services.

Businesses are also starting to realise the value of making their non-personal data freely available, with open innovation leading to the creation products and services that they can benefit from.

“The whole move in the 21st century to a data-driven economy means that countries need a data infrastructure that’s fit for purpose, and a good part of that data infrastructure is going to be open data,” said Sir Nigel Shadbolt, chairman of the Open Data Institute (ODI), which aims to drive open data culture.

Now a range of UK start-ups are working with the ODI to build businesses using open data, and have already unlocked a total of £2.5 million worth of investments and contracts.

Mastodon C joined the ODI start-up programme at its inception in December 2012. Shortly after joining, the company teamed up with Ben Goldacre and Open Healthcare UK, and embarked on a project investigating the use of branded statins over the far cheaper generic versions.

The data analysis identified potential efficiency savings to the NHS of £200 million. The company is now also working with the Technology Strategy Board and Nesta to help them gain better insight into their data.

Another start-up, CarbonCulture is a community platform designed to help people use resources more efficiently. The company uses high-tech metering to monitor carbon use in the workplace and help clients save money.

Organisations such as 10 Downing Street, Tate, Cardiff Council, the GLA and the UK Parliament are using the company’s digital tools to monitor and improve their energy consumption. CarbonCulture has also helped the Department of Energy and Climate Change reduce its gas use by 10 per cent.

Spend Network’s business is built on collecting the spend statements and tender documents published by government in the UK and Europe and then publishing this data openly so that anyone can use it. The company currently hosts over £1.2 trillion of transactions from the UK and over 1.8 million tenders from across Europe.

One of the company’s major breakthroughs was creating the first national, open spend analysis for central and local government. This was used to uncover a 45 per cent delay in the UK’s tendering process, holding up £22 billion of government funds to the economy.

Meanwhile, TransportAPI uses open data feeds from Traveline, Network Rail and Transport for London to provide nationwide timetables, departure and infrastructure information across all modes of public transport.

TransportAPI currently has 700 developers and organisations signed up to its platform, including individual taxpayers and public sector organisations like universities and local authorities. Travel portals, hyperlocal sites and business analytics are also integrating features, such as the ‘nearest transport’ widget, into their websites.

These are just four examples of how start-ups are using open data to create new digital services. The ODI this week announced seven new open data start-ups joining the programme, covering 3D printed learning materials, helping disabled communities, renewable energy markets, and smart cities.

“We’ve been pushing hard for the government to release non-personal open data across a whole range of stuff, from health to education to transport,” said Sir Shadbolt. “We need to keep convincing Treasury that the creation of these businesses ultimately creates much bigger economic value than a few bob sweated out of monopoly rent.”