Of open data case studies and time machines…

“Statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and write.” Samuel S. Wilks

In an address to the American Statistical Association in 1951, Samuel Wilks paraphrased a passage from H.G. Wells’s book, Mankind in the making, which was published over 100 years ago. A mere eight years following the publication of The Time Machine, H.G. Wells predicted a future in which accessing and thinking about “…a great deal of the essential fact of financial science, and endless social and political problems…” would only be made possible if citizens had the ability to compute basic facts from data. In today’s world of open and big data, the passage is amazingly prescient, and speaks as much to the modern analytical needs of businesses as it does to the central role to be played in transparency by citizens.

All organisations now have access to a wealth of data on which to base their analyses and insight. This data can come from many different sources – some collected by the organisation itself but much from outside. And thanks to the efforts of UK government departments, local authorities and other public sector bodies, as well as organisations such as the Open Data User Group (ODUG) and the Open Data Institute (ODI), thousands of potentially useful external data sources are now being made available as open data on – freely available for commercial and personal use.

With all the hype that surrounds data and analytics, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the technologies, skills, governance and policies needed to explore data properly are still maturing. Right now, it is easier for businesses to focus on the data right in front them than to think about what else might be useful, let alone disruptive. The exploration of the relatively new open data universe is therefore only just beginning.

Even so, early pioneers are already seeing the benefits. That’s why the ODUG is collecting a new generation of case studies to tell the stories of a range of organisations, small and large, public and private, for-profit and otherwise, to help put a finger on the impact open data is having on spurring transparency, economic growth and social progress.

For example:

  • The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has combined official statistics on fuel poverty and energy consumption, as well as open data from the energy market, to produce maps that help citizens and businesses visualise the effect of green policies and encourage uptake of the ‘green deal’. [read the case study]
  • The Open Data Institute has been working with numerous peer-to-peer lenders, such as Zopa, RateSetter and Funding Circle, to increase visibility of this new financial market, which may enhance customer trust and reduce the need for restrictive regulations. [read the case study]
  • Transport API, developed by Placr, brings together travel data from across the UK’s transport network to provide comprehensive information and consultancy services that businesses can use to keep their customers informed and avoid unnecessary disruption. [read the case study]

These examples are a snapshot of how organisations are beginning to change the way they interact with other data-hungry organisations and consumers. Through these case studies, we can also begin to see which data sets are in greatest demand and where there may be gaps that the National Information Infrastructure or future data releases can help to address.

The bottom line is that at least one – and potentially many, many more – of the 15,000-plus data sets available on is going to be useful to your organisation (or to your competitors). Others may provide the spark for a new business idea, or for a new way of helping others. All of them, though, have a story to tell. And through these stories, the impact of open data and good citizenship can begin to be felt.

If you have a case study you would like to share on, please contact

Harvey Lewis, ODUG member

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