Open Data Now, book review: An optimistic view of a brave new world

This book examines the benefits — primarily economic — of open data, and foresees a bright future. But can we learn from the early days of the internet and avoid the inevitable pitfalls?

Open Data Now: The Secret to Hot Startups, Smart Investing, Savvy Marketing, and Fast Innovation • By Joel Gurin • McGraw Hill Education • 272 pages • ISBN: 978-0-07-182977-9 • £19.99

In early February, the consultant Alan Patrick gave a talk at the Open Data Institute (ODI) on the dark side of open data. Essentially, he said that early adopter geeks are approaching open data with the same starry-eyed, innocent optimism with which they approached the early internet.

All uses will be good! Empowerment for all! Bad guys won't be interested! Patrick's purpose was to warn: look what happened with the internet and security because we didn't plan ahead.

Joel Gurin's Open Data Now focuses primarily on the economic benefits of open data. Gurin acknowledges the potential for improving government transparency, but it gets short shrift by comparison. He is, however, as optimistic and enthusiastic about the potential as they come.

Among others, he quotes Gavin Starks, CEO of the ODI, who compares his current excitement about open data to his feeling about the internet in its early days: "I have a similar perspective on Open Data: it is a social response to local, national, and global systems issues. If we are entering an era of data-driven decision making to tackle social equity, environmental sustainability, and economic growth, we will need Open Data to help inform those decisions."

Gurin starts by distinguishing big data from open data. With big data, he writes, the data sources are generally passive and the data is usually private; open data is typically public and purposefully collected.

Think of the difference between the trail of your movements from one mobile phone cell to another versus the map of mobile network towers. The former is held and analysed by your mobile network operator and the NSA; the latter is a public resource that's been deliberately collected to aid future planning and identify black spots. (And maybe other uses, who knows?)

The unifying technology is, of course, big computing, without which neither purpose could be served.

The state of play

The rest of the book looks at the state of play, studying examples of how open data is being used to build startups and implement new ideas. Gurin advises firms to give customers back their data in order to build loyalty.

Events since Gurin finished writing suggest that his book will date quickly and the world of 2020 will not look the way he thinks.

Switch to open innovation, he urges; release research data early to accelerate R&D and speed new products to market.

He closes with his fantasy of the world in 2020, when open data has taken hold, and customers are better served, healthcare and financial services are personally tailored, and intractable problems — including climate change — are being solved.

Maybe. And yet... Events since Gurin finished writing suggest that his book will date quickly and the world of 2020 will not look the way he thinks. One of his example companies, iTriage, which built on open data to do medical diagnostics over the web, now belongs to the insurance company Aetna.

Another, Climate Corporation, built on open weather data to help small farmers better plan every detail of managing each field, has been sold to Monsanto. This is the future that Alan Patrick warned against: the one where open data further empowers the already empowered.

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