The underpinning risks, challenges and opportunities of Open Data
To celebrate Open Data Day on 6 March 2021, we hosted a panel discussion to explore the potential of open data in land development. Our panellists talked about what’s blocking its use, and how these challenges could be met.
James Madison, from the Open Data Institute (ODI), joined Yuriy Milevskiy, founder of Novaya, a company offering an integrated data-driven approach to planning. Hazards Forum Trustee Nina Jirouskova chaired the discussion.
Though widening access to urban datasets can improve mapping, environmental management and equal development, opening up data presents risks and challenges. Utilities infrastructure datasets are a particular test; though they’re critical in land development, concerns about security threats, such as terrorism, can’t be ignored. Though the value of data is ‘a huge opportunity’ in the field of land development, current practice for data acquisition and management is ad-hoc and inefficient.
What’s the value of open data?
‘Open data brings with it a whole world of possibilities’, James explained. He defined open data as ‘data that anyone can access, use or share’, published under an adequate open licence. However, he stressed ‘efficiency, trust and openness’ were essential to underpin the value of such data. James said: ‘The more people have access [to the data], the more value can be generated from those data.’
As well as meeting known needs, open data creates opportunities. James said: ‘Openness lets us improve capability around data – get people to help you make better decisions using the data … There’s a real value chain.’ But with opportunity comes responsibility: the need to make sure we’re accountable for what we do with data, and to use it in a fair and equitable way.
Yuriy said momentum was growing for the better use of open data and digitalisation. Examples include the Greater London Authority’s London Data Store and start-ups, such as Urban Intelligence and LandTech. Indeed, his own company is one of many seeking to unlock the power of data (a greatly improved version of the London Data Store was released a few days after Open Data Day 2021. The datahub now includes live data, fed from boroughs and applicants.)
Why isn’t open data playing a bigger role in land development?
James said the complexity around data ownership was a key blocker to open data initiatives. Companies were scared to give up ownership of data; though they sensed it had commercial value, they didn’t know exactly what that was. Their data might have elements that are unimportant to them but have value for others. Yuriy agreed, saying that ‘not understanding how’ led to most of the fears holding back the potential of open data. Other aspects mentioned included:
- Lack of understanding of the business case of open data
- Concerns about commercially sensitive content
- Compliance requirements such as those of the UK General Data Protection Regulation also add to the level of scrutiny and cautiousness of organisations.
James went on to explain how fear of data may lead to what the ODI has termed the ‘wasteland’. Legitimate concerns – such as who has access to data and how they might be used – prevent us from realising its full benefits. Data might not be collected or used to the extent it could be. Individuals withdrawing consent could lead to data that is biased and misleading (the opposite is the ‘Oil field’, where data is hoarded to benefit only a few). The ODI views this wasteland as ‘full of intelligent, ethical, equitable and collaboratively engaging data’ that could have value if open data were adopted.
What are the risks if open data is ignored?
If organisations don’t look at the data they have, it just sits there and it isn’t used – even if they’re spending time and money to maintain it, James explained. Conversely, opening this data allows others to use their skills to bring value to it. Using compelling case studies from Moscow and Johannesburg, Yuriy demonstrated how avoiding open data leads to suboptimal and disjointed planning policies and urban development. Each discipline or activity operates in its own silo of knowledge, working from partial data and biased by its own focus and interests.
Boundary effects impose particular constraints on datasets used for land development. As Yuriy demonstrated with Moscow, the needs of populations don’t match administrative borders and the lack of open data means this isn’t represented.
Open data, on the other hand, could provide a more homogeneous, unbiased and relevant data space across territories, enabling land development to better answer the population’s needs.
Focus on utilities
James and Yuriy agreed that utilities remained a unique challenge in opening up data to land development projects. Although such data are critical to assess the feasibility and viability of development plans, most utilities companies don’t want to open up their data, often citing ‘security’ as the reason. Though some concerns are well-grounded – in relation to explosion risks associated to gas pipes, for example, and terrorism threats – James said security was sometimes used as an excuse.
Utilities are essential to land development, Yuriy explained. He said it could take up to three years to learn the cost of connecting to the mains in Johannesburg, which was too long for developers to hold the land. Developers were also unsure how much the same service would cost them two blocks away.
Yuriy said utilities didn’t want to give exact information, so there was a need to ask how data could be aggregated and made available without creating any risks.
Well-controlled data aggregation initiatives are starting to emerge, however, he said. Could these meet the needs of developers and users of urban spaces, while enhancing the utilities companies’ offerings and business strategies, and managing the risks? Novaya is supporting Johannesburg as part of the first Urban Links Africa Accelerator Cohort. This is funded by Innovate UK and run by Connected Places Catapult, the UK’s national centre of excellence for urban innovation.
What are the criteria for the successful use of open data?
James gave three criteria needed for effective, safe use of open data:
- Good data infrastructure – ‘the guides, policies, people, technologies and standards need to be in place. The stuff that sits around data is really important’
- A problem-focused approach – ‘There’s no point to open data if you haven’t got a purpose.’
- Effective communication – ‘It’s great to have the motivation to share knowledge and insight, but people won’t use it unless you tell them it’s there.’
Yuriy added: ‘There needs to be a strong user case… [Often] one side doesn’t know what to request, and the other side doesn’t know how to provide it.’
To unlock the power of open data, a difficult balance needed to be struck between protecting rights and creating value, James said. The ODI’s Manifesto for Sharing Engineering Data includes the key performance criteria for open data. They include:
- 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.
Who needs to be on board with open data initiatives?
Building on the ODI’s experience, James said it was important to get the private sector on board first. As with most innovation-driven initiatives, the ‘fear of being a pioneer’ can be a barrier for some. James said: ‘Companies are fearful of being the pioneer but when they take a step, a lot of the other companies want to join in. Let’s take it forward as a community, surround it with regulators, government, get charities, non-profits, consumers and citizens on board too.’
Yuriy added: ‘Always think about the users and who consumes the data. It only has value when it is used. Start with the user-case perspective, then approach the data custodians – make it easier to explain the value of the data. Don’t just open it up and play with it.’
What’s the case for open data in land development?
Drawing again on ODI experience, James made the case for clearly communicating the value of open data to the private sector. He 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 (see the ODI’s post for more detail).
Yuriy added that, for him, the business case of open data was one of ensuring the sustainability of businesses in our digital era, and enabling democracy. It’s also one of expanding the breadth of services and products offered at current, with a greater dynamic accuracy in market intelligence.
In summary, Nina helped James and Yuriy make a compelling case for the greater use of open data in land development. Greater data literacy is needed on all sides to make this happen. Organisations need to understand and realise the potential value of the data they own, and the dangers of abandoning it in the ‘wasteland’. Greater use of open data could lead to more equitable and efficient land development; a reluctance to share could contribute to inequitable overdevelopment.
About the ODI
The ODI has a mission to build an open and trustworthy data ecosystem, for ‘a world where data works for everyone’, in the words of Jeni Tennison, vice president and chief strategy adviser. Their key ongoing project, in collaboration with the Lloyds Register Foundation, is to improve data skills and literacy in the safety sector.
Novaya strives to unlock the potential of data, including open data, in participatory town planning, internationally. They support private and public sector clients, and their communities, through the lifecycle of development projects. They’re constantly improving and developing tools for their user-centric, integrated approach, which covers advisory, planning and design work.