The underpinning risks, challenges and opportunities of Open Data – a focus on the case of utilities data for land development
Published on 25th March 2021 by Nina Jirouskova, Hazards Forum Board Member and Resilience Enabler
Event held on 6th of March 2021, with James Madison (ODI), Yuriy Milevskiy (Novaya), and Nina Jirouskova (Hazards Forum)
To celebrate Open Data Day on the 6th of March 2021, the Hazards Forum hosted an exciting panel discussion to explore what is currently hindering the potentialization of open data in land development endeavours and what could be envisaged to solve some of these challenges.
Whilst widening access to urban datasets can be key in improving mapping capabilities, environmental management and equal development, as highlighted by the Open Data Day agenda for 2021, there are risks and challenges associated with opening up the relevant datasets. In particular, the challenge associated to utilities infrastructure datasets is of paramount importance due to the coupling effect of their criticality in land development and the concerns of security threats and terrorism that underpin them.
During this event, our two distinguished speakers from the Open Data Institute (James Madison) and Novaya (Yuriy Milevskiy) shared with the Hazards Forum event chair and board member, Nina Jirouskova, their insights on the key challenges faced in opening up data and their respective initiatives to unlock value in land development through such endeavours.
Setting the scene
Yuriy M. (Novaya) set the scene of current practice in data acquisition & management in land development, stressing how much of an ad-hoc and inefficient process it mostly is at present.
Referring to recent initiatives such as the London Data Store (by the Greater London Authority) and new start-ups such as the UK-based companies Urban Intelligence or LandTech, Yuriy showed that the momentum behind efforts supporting the optimisation of land development through digitalisation and use of open data is growing.
The company he founded, Novaya, a company with an international footprint across continents, is one of many seeking to unlock value through such data-driven approaches and sees the use of open data as “a huge opportunity in the field”.
The value of Open Data
Defining Open Data as “data that anyone can access, use or share”, published under an adequate open license, James Madison (ODI) highlighted the value of such data to be underpinned by: EFFICIENCY, TRUST & OPENNESS. In his words, “the more people have access [to the data], the more value can be generated from those data”.
In addition, open data endeavours are, as mentioned by James, likely to create opportunities to increase broader data-associated capabilities as well as grow the necessary infrastructure.
Understanding the current lack of adoption of open data initiatives in land development
James M. (ODI) identified first the complexity of the structure of ownership of the data to be a key impediment to open data initiatives. In agreement with this statement, Yuriy M. (Novaya) reinforced that “not understanding how” governs most of the fears currently holding back the shift towards open data potentialisation.
Other aspects mentioned by the speakers included the lack of understanding of the business case of open data, and concerns associated to commercial interests, in relation to competitivity and commercially sensitive content. Compliance requirements such as those of the GDPR also add to the level of scrutiny and cautiousness of organisations in entering the space of open data.
This fear of data may lead to what ODI coins the data “wasteland” – in a very interesting analogy to the ecological narrative – consisting of potentially biased and misleading data (the “pollution”), and a waste of resource of intelligent, ethical, equitable and collaboratively engaging data that open data initiatives could provide.
What would be the risks of not truly onboarding the open data train?
Through telling case studies, Yuriy M. (Novaya) stressed that the gap in open data utilisation leads to suboptimal and disjointed planning policies and urban development, each activity operating in its own silo of knowledge, based on partial data, biased by each discipline’s focus and interests rather than being driven by the outcome resulting from both combined.
Another key point raised was the boundary effects created by local administrative entities’ boundaries (boroughs, city, county, region etc.). These could indeed impose constraints on datasets utilised for land development and result in a poor data representativity of border-less demands of the population, ultimately leading to inadequate land development.
Open data, on the other hand, could help provide a more homogeneous, unbiased and relevant data space across territories, thereby enabling land development to better answer the population’s needs.
Focus on utilities
Through the discussion, both panellists agreed that utilities remain a unique challenge in opening up data to land development endeavours.
Although such data are critical to assess the feasibility and viability of development plans, most utilities companies are unwilling to communicate the data openly, often mentioning reasons of security as a basis to their decision. The concerns are indeed well-grounded in the urban risk management space – in relation to explosion risks associated to gas pipes for example and rising concerns of terrorism threats.
A window of opportunity however seems to be opening up through well-controlled data aggregation initiatives that could help meet developers’ and urban space users’ needs and enhance the utilities companies’ offering and business strategies whilst appropriately managing these risks.
Novaya is currently actively contributing to this effort within their support to the city of Johannesburg in South Africa as part of the first Urban Links Africa Accelerator Cohort funded by Innovate UK and run by Connected Places Catapult, the UK’s national centre of excellence for urban innovation.
Performance Criteria required for Open Data to “work” for land development
James M. (ODI) noted that the power of open data can be truly unlocked once the right balance is found between protecting rights (of people and businesses) and creating value.
Building on the Manifesto for Sharing Engineering Data published by ODI and endorsed by many key UK-based stakeholders in the field (e.g., CRA, HSE, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Blue Marine Foundation, the Alan Turing Institute Cambridge University, UCL, Mott MacDonald, Arup, Atkins, and many others), James M. (ODI) and Yuriy M. (Novaya) laid out some of the key performance criteria for open data, including:
- Sustainable access
- Transparency about provenance, quality and limitations
- Public Good as end-value
- Robust Infrastructure (people, systems, policies and technologies)
- Purposeful and problem-focused design and delivery
- Driven by and managed through Integrative and User-focused Communication, sharing knowledge and insight
- Data whole lifecycle support
In the deployment of open data initiatives, who should be onboarded?
Building on the extensive experience of ODI engaging with and onboarding a wide range of stakeholders onto open data initiatives, James M. (ODI) raised the importance of getting the private sector, governments, regulators, charities and consumers/citizens on board.
Whilst open data can be considered a natural fit and an easy sale to governments, charities, and to some extent citizens, as long as their privacy is protected, it is somehow more complicated to get the private sector to buy into these endeavours. James M. (ODI) therefore stressed the need to get businesses on board first.
An argument could also be made that in a consumer-driven society, where most data valuable to businesses are generated by citizens, onboarding them early in the process could be an impactful strategy.
The current difficulties in onboarding the private sector for open data, as mentioned earlier in the discussion, relate in part to the risks of such endeavours and in part to the somewhat still difficult communication of the business value of open data at present. As mentioned by James, the “fear of being a pioneer” is also a powerful impeding factor to the open data movement, an experience that is shared with most innovation-driven initiatives.
In order to build a successful future for open data, all three entities of governments, private sector and citizens need to be successfully onboarded and their interests met.
The case for open data in land development – a good business case, for the public good
Reflecting on ODI’s experience in engaging with the private sector, James M. (ODI) mentioned some of the key arguments which seem to make the most impact on businesses in clearly communicating the value of open data to the sector. In particular, James M. (ODI) referred to a project with Atkins and the Lloyds Register Foundation looking at optimising data acquisition, collection and use in engineering consultancy for brownfield sites. Some of these arguments are summarised below, and the interested readers may refer to ODI’s post on the topic for more details here.
Yuriy M. (Novaya), corroborated James M.’s (ODI) view, adding that for him, the business case of open data is very much one of ensuring the sustainability of businesses in our digital era, and enabling democracy. It is also one of expanding the breadth of services and products offered at current, with a greater dynamic accuracy in market intelligence.
Open data was hence shown to have a strong business case, whilst being underpinned by the wish to support the public good.
Some of the key business case arguments raised in the discussion by the panellists are summarised below:
- Stakeholder engagement enablement, especially as a strategically valuable “good-faith” gesture towards public partners in PPPs;
- Supply chain optimisation;
- Risk Management support by enabling the identification of weak links across wide systems, adding transparency to data management, and future-proofing the business;
- Branding coherence, consumer trust and reputational gain from public good-driven, ethical, future-looking, and end-consumer-benefit focus;
- Cross-organisational data optimisation for technical and qualitative advancement of services across sectors (e.g., in engineering consultancies);
- Consumer attractivity and competitivity with strong brand and value delivery, especially with regard to corporate social responsibility and environmental social governance agendas of prospective clients; and
- Forward-looking business development opportunity – data as added value to potentialize and new types of data-based services/products to sell.
Next Steps for ODI and Novaya
ODI is constantly pursuing its mission to build an open and trustworthy data ecosystem, for “a world where data works for everyone” (Jeni Tennison, Vice President and Chief Strategy Advisor”. One of ODI’s key ongoing projects, carried out in collaboration with the Lloyds Register Foundation, is looking to improve data skills and literacy in the sector to increase capabilities and accompany the transformations necessary to successfully make the shift.
Novaya continuously strives to unlock the potential of data, including open data, in participatory town planning, supporting clients from both private and public sectors, across continents. Its user-centric, integrated approach covers advisory, planning and design work, accompanying clients and their communities throughout the whole lifecycle of development projects; constantly improving and developing new innovative tools to meet the demand of today and tomorrow.
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 A few days following Open Data Day 2021, a drastically improved version of the London Data Store was released. The datahub now includes live data fed from boroughs and applicants to enable a live picture of how the city is changing, how planning policies are impacting that change, and how that is impacting the environments we live in.