Translating the potential of open data into practice

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“Data is the next oil. Data is the new capital of the 21st century. Data will spur innovation and drive growth.” We’ve all heard statements like these over the last few years. And in many ways they’re true. As the volume and richness of data rapidly increases, so does the demand for insight into strategies that can be implemented to harness its full value, says Harvey Lewis of Deloitte LLP. Harvey talks about translating the potential of open data into practice at 5pm Tuesday 15th July at Woburn House, Tavistock Square.  

The open data movement democratises this evolving market by publishing data that is free for anyone to use, reuse and redistribute subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and share alike. The World Wide Web Foundation now estimates that there are over 370 open data initiatives around the world. Collectively, and through portals such as Quandl and, these initiatives have made a staggering quantity of data available – in excess of eight million data sets. In the UK, the government’s principal open data portal provides access to nearly 20,000 data sets, covering topics ranging from transport and health to education and the environment.

According to McKinsey, open data has a potential global value of $3 trillion. In a recent report, Open for Business, sponsored by the Omidyar Network, Lateral Economics estimated that open data – including open access research – could contribute as much as $13 trillion to the economies of the G20 nations cumulatively over the next five years. In an assessment carried out as part of the Shakespeare Review in 2013, the Department for Business Innovation and Skills estimated that the direct economic impact of public sector information in 2011 was over £7 billion.

But potential is not the same thing as reality. The challenge is to ensure that the plans drawn up by public sector bodies to release specific data sets are based on how the data can achieve a beneficial outcome, not – or, at least, not solely – based on the cost or ease of publication. Despite the best of intentions, only a relatively small proportion of open data sets now available has the latent potential to create significant economic or social impact. As the UK’s economy resurfaces from the depths of recession, how can this potential be identified and translated into reality? And what does this mean for the higher education sector?

Higher education is a sector inundated with data, which has the capacity to contribute to the enhancement of both university education and research. Open data also has the potential to facilitate decision making and organisational change here, to provide insight into student choice and recruitment, improve teaching and learning, enhance the research process and help to drive growth in the local economies of which the universities are a significant contributor.

As competition among higher education providers intensifies and markets are deregulated, data provides an opportunity to get ahead. And, in a sense, open data is already disrupting the higher education system through MOOCs – Massively Online Open Courses – which are providing free alternatives to students seeking high quality lectures and course materials. In the face of this new competition for education and admissions, universities have to re-examine how they recruit, retain and educate their students, and ensure that the true value of their costly bricks and mortar is realised.

Demonstrating the uplift in value that universities deliver over online alternatives means providing prospective students with the information they need to make informed decisions about their education choices. Publishing open data is one route to achieving this. And there are other benefits, too. Giving data back and being transparent about the way it is used and the benefits it delivers can result in greater trust in the relationships that a university establishes with its peers, with businesses and the public sector, and especially with its students.

As a result, a more solid community is established, and this may in itself play a part in providing insight into student choice. Southampton University, among one of the pioneers in open data, publishes a catalogue of open data made available by UK academic institutions. The university also has its own open data service, publishing daily lunch menus, a ‘Room Finder’, bus timetables, and an open data map of the campus.

Publishing data benefits more than just admissions and student retention, of course. Operational efficiency, environmental impact and social responsibility all benefit from the public’s ability to access data and hold senior university officials to account.

But while there may be a justifiable clamour for the UK’s universities to open up more of their data, equally they need to use other sources of open data – both from the higher education sector and from elsewhere – to help them become more efficient and more effective in the increasingly competitive business of education.

For example, faculty heads could benchmark their courses against local or national employment needs by using business data published by Companies House and the Office for National Statistics. Admissions staff could match their applicant and admissions data to detailed demographic information compiled through the census and other data published by the Universities Central Admissions System (UCAS) and the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) – among others – to get a better understanding of the relationships affecting both recruitment and retention of their students locally and nationally.

In practice, many such examples of the value of open data in higher education can be identified. Typically, what all have in common is that they depend on both publishing and use of open data; and on blending external open data sources with the internal institutional and administrative data collected by individual universities.

The bottom line is that by capitalising on the wealth of data now available – from internal activities as well as external sources – universities can generate valuable new insights to aid executive and operational decision-making. Through open data, university executives will be equipped to make smarter decisions. In response to their questions, they will receive clear and timely intelligence; opportunities and risks will be highlighted by insights derived from data that is well-managed, secure and accessible; and decision-making, itself, becomes more open and collaborative.

Here are the video and presentation from the event.

Harvey Lewis is Director of Deloitte Insight and Deloitte Analytics at Deloitte LLP