Open data, open mind: Why you should share your company data with the world

Keeping your corporate information safe from prying eyes could also mean missing out on some big opportunities.

CIO Andrew Marks: Opening access to data means your firm is going to get more ideas. Image: iStock
If information really is the lifeblood of modern organisations, then CIOs could create huge benefits from opening their data to new, creative pairs of eyes.

Research from consultant McKinsey suggests that seven sectors alone could generate more than $3 trillion a year in additional value as a result of open data: that is, taking previously proprietary data (often starting with public sector data) and opening up access.

So, should your business consider giving outsiders access to insider information? ZDNet speaks to three experts.

More viewpoints can mean better results

Former Tullow Oil CIO Andrew Marks says debates about the potential openness of data in a private sector context are likely to be dominated by one major concern: information security.

"It's a perfectly reasonable debate until people start thinking about privacy," he says. "Putting information at risk, both in terms of customer data and competitive advantage, will be a risk too far for many senior executives."

But what if CIOs could allay c-suite peers' concerns and create a new opportunity? Marks points to the Goldcorp Challenge, which saw the mining specialist share its proprietary geological data to allow outside experts pick likely spots for mining.

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The challenge, which included prize money of $575,000 helped identify more than 110 sites, 50 per cent of which were previously unknown to the company. The value of gold found through the competition exceeded $6bn. Marks wonders whether other firms could take similarly brave steps.

"There is a period of time when information is very sensitive," he says. "Once the value of data starts to become finite, then it might be beneficial for businesses to open the doors and to let outsiders play with the information. That approach, in terms of gamification, might lead to the creation of new ideas and innovations."

London transport authority TfL, for example, is committed to the provision of free, open data. The initiative allows app developers to create a range of travel products, helping customers to trace the whereabouts of their Tube trains, bikes, and buses.

Marks says these projects help prove that, when it comes to data, more is likely to mean different - and possibly better - results. "Whether using big data algorithms or the human touch, the more viewpoints you bring together, the more you can increases chances of success and reduce risk," he says.

"There is, therefore, always likely to be value in seeking an alternative perspective. Opening access to data means your firm is going to get more ideas, but CIOs and other senior executives need to think very carefully about what such openness means for the business, and the potential benefits."

Create clear data standards for outside experts

Some leading firms are already taking steps towards openness. Take Christina Scott, chief product and information officer at the Financial Times, who says the media organisation has used data analysts to help push the benefits of information-led insight across the business.

Her team has democratised data in order to make sure that all parts of the organisation can get the information they need to complete their day-to-day jobs. Scott says the approach is best viewed as an open data strategy, but within the safe confines of the existing enterprise firewall. While the tactic is internally focused currently, Scott says the FT is keen to find ways to make the most of external talent in the future.

"We're starting to consider how we might open data beyond the organisation, too," she says. "Our data holds a lot of value and insight, including across the metadata we've created. So it would be great to think about how we could use that information in a more open way."

Part of the FT's business includes trade-focused magazines. Scott says opening the data could provide new insight to its B2B customers across a range of sectors. In fact, the firm has already dabbled at a smaller scale.

"We've run hackathons, where we've exposed our APIs and given people the chance to come up with some new ideas," she says. "But I don't think we've done as much work on open data as we could. And I think that's the direction in which better organisations are moving. They recognise that not all innovation is going to happen within the company."

Scott says it would be possible, at a technical level, to open more data now. While there is a way, however, there must be a will - and she recognises that governance and security must be right in order to placate both senior business stakeholders and external data experts.

"You have to make sure the data is easy to understand," says Scott. "There's a difference between people who've worked with the data internally on a day-to-day basis, and who understand the classifications we use, and those who are coming to the information afresh. The preparation work would involve making sure we have very clear data standards and explanations for outsiders."

Be ready to make a leap of faith

CIO Omid Shiraji is another IT expert who recognises that there is a general move towards a more open society. Any executive who expects to work within a tightly defined enterprise firewall is living in cloud cuckoo land, he argues. More to the point, they will miss out on big advantages.

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"If you can expose your sources to a range of developers, you can start to benefit from massive innovation," he says. "You can get really big benefits from opening your data to external experts who can focus on areas that you don't have the capability to develop internally."

Many IT leaders would like to open data to outside experts, suggests Shiraji. For CIOs who are keen to expose their sources, he suggests letting small-scale developers take a close look at in-house data silos in an attempt to discover what relationships might exist and what advantages could accrue.

Shiraji says he would have liked to draw on outside help in some of his previous roles, especially when it came to finding new ways to use data to enrich people's lives. However, CIOs can sometimes be thwarted by rules and regulations beyond their influence.

"It can be a struggle," he says. "But I have always thought that the potential rewards are definitely bigger than the risks. It takes a massive leap in faith for organisations to recognise that opening data can create new markets and channels for the business to exploit."

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