From Data to Dollars-How Open Data Initiatives Can Support Business Innovation and Transparency in the Caribbean

currency exchange copyData is more accessible today than anyone could have imagined only a few decades ago. From corporate databases to Internet connected repositories is the lifeblood of the digital economy. With growth projected at 40 per cent a year into the next decade, it is unleashing a new wave of innovative services and opportunities.

Open Data World
As more of the world goes online, there are increasing opportunities for businesses, governments and people to use data in new ways. For example, data allows us to to learn about customers, optimize business processes, better customize products and services. Add the Internet to the mix and you have a world of data possibilities that can be built upon the foundation of cloud computing, mobility, social networks. But for those possibilities to be realized, the data has to be accessible. The more accessible it is, the more opportunities there are for everyone. That’s where open data comes in.

Open data is information that is available for anyone to use, for any purpose, at no cost. For example, the UK 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 area.

Open data applications can be as simple as mobile phone apps identifying gas station you will encounter on a trip to a different town, or as intricate as analyzing taxation data translating it into transparency programs and public policy.

Governments worldwide are working to open up more of their data. The number of countries with open data programs has grown rapidly over the last few years. More than 40 countries have now open government data sites. However, only one Caribbean nation scores above 35 percent in the International Budget Partnership Open Budget Index, which monitors budget transparency across the world, and few Caribbean nations currently publish data in open formats online.

Billions in Opportunities
Open-data advocates, such as US President Obama’s former chief information officer Vivek Kundra, estimate that raw government data from sectors such as weather, population, energy, housing, commerce or transportation can spawn a multibillion-dollar industry by turning that data into products and applications for the public to consume or other industries to pay for.

Waldo Jaquith, director of the nonprofit U.S. Open Data Institute, created to help governments release and promote their data, said the idea of turning government data from all levels of government into a multibillion-dollar industry isn’t far-fetched.

He points to The Climate Corporation, which offers farmers software and crop insurance policies. The company, founded by two Google engineers using 30 years of government weather, soil and crop data, was sold to agricultural multinational corporation Monsanto for $930 million.

In the UK, a range of start-ups are working with the UK’s Open Data Institute (ODI) to build businesses using open data, and have already unlocked a total of £2.5 million worth of investments and contracts.

This economic promise is the main reason why businesses are also starting to pay attention to open data. But there is a real investment that must be made. Maximizing the opportunities of the data-driven economy requires certain imperatives for IT organizations. Information security, for example, next- generation analytics, and data access tools and processes.

Caribbean Connections
Tapping the potential of data in the Caribbean will take determination and a skilled workforce to find and put to use. The process has already started.

A new regional open data project to support business innovation and transparency in the Caribbean has recently been launched. The initiative is supported by a grant from the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), the World Bank and its Trust Fund for Statistical Capacity Building. The project will also partner with the Caribbean Telecommunications Union and other regional organizations working in the Open Data area.

St Lucia recently started an Open Data Readiness Assessment (ODRA). A pilot assessment in Antigua and Barbuda was completed in July 2013 and discussions are ongoing with several countries in the region to roll-out the initiative.

Civil society and the private sector are doing their part as well. Jamaica-based ConnectiMass and Trinidad and Tobago-based Teleios Systems are supporting “hackathons,” like Digital Jam and challenges like Code Jam, inviting businesspeople, software developers, entrepreneurs or anyone with appetite for manipulating data and building applications to take part.  This year’s DigitalJAM, an initiative by the World Bank and Government of Jamaica, featured the development of the first Open Data Sports Hackathon in the World.

The goals of these events vary. Some, like BrightPath Foundation’s App Master mobile app programs, solicit ideas for how government can present its data more effectively. Others, Like Teleios’ Code Jam  target college students and software enthusiasts, seeking their ideas for mining open data repositories .

Kevin Khelawan, Teleios’ chief operating officer, says many governments and firms want advice on how to use the data to make their organizations more responsive to the needs of citizens and customers.

The appeal of open data is obvious, he says, “We live in an information hungry world. To feed that, you need the data. Governments have by far the largest amount of data from which real economic value can be created. They have a key role to play in activating open data in the region. However, so too does the private sector.”

Unlocking Economic Value
He is correct. Although the open-data phenomenon is in its early days, its potential to unlock significant economic value is already significant. A recent McKinsey Global Institute report found that it already giving rise to hundreds of entrepreneurial businesses and helping established companies to segment markets, define new products and services, and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of operations.

For the region to realize these same benefits much work has to be done by governments, companies, and consumers. Policies have to be crafted to open up datasets; protect privacy and intellectual property; encourage access; and invest in technology and expertise needed to use the data effectively.

For open data to gain traction in the region, deliberate steps must be take in the public and private sectors to cultivate a vibrant open-data ecosystem that promotes openness, innovation and transparency. To achieve this consumers have to be educated, governments have to match words with action, and businesses have to step up and invest the development of the human resource talent and tech needed to turn data into dollars.

Bevil Wooding is the Chief Knowledge Officer of Congress WBN (www.congresswbn.org), a values-based, international charity and the Executive Director of BrightPath Foundation, a technology education non-profit organization. Reach him on Twitter @bevilwooding or on facebook.com/bevilwooding or contact via email at technologymatters@brightpathfoundation.org.