The transition towards transparency

We will always have graffiti, as long as it harder to remove it than it is to create it, whether you like it or not.

Similarly, in an age when it’s easier to share data than to protect it, we need to assume that anything that can be digitised will become available (eventually). And it’s better to do so proactively by choice, rather than reactively by leaks, theft, or more likely, human error.


It’s a very exciting time for field of open data, especially in the UK public sector which is arguably leading the world in this emerging discipline right now, in no small part thanks to the efforts to the Open Data Institute. There is a strong push to release public data and to explore new innovations that can be created as a result.

“Three years from now, people are going to be sharing eight to 10 times as much stuff.” Mark Zuckerberg

For instance, the Ordnance Survey have been leading the way with opening up half of their data for others to use, complemented by their GeoVation programme which provides support and incentive for external innovators to develop new products and services.

More recently the Technology Strategy Board have been working with the likes of NERC, ESRC, Met Office, Environment Agency and other public agencies to help solve business problems using environmental data (see here).

And even companies like Tesco are opening up their API to release certain amounts of their data to realise new products and services developed by 3rd party developers

These trailblazing initiatives have huge potential and it is also a watershed moment for public services and data entrepreneurs.  What economic and social value can be generated with all this data?  How can we make more innovative products and services for less?

“No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.” Bill Joy, Sun Microsystems

It goes without saying that data won’t leap up and create any value by itself any more than a pile of discarded parts outside a factory will assemble themselves into a car.   We’ve found that the secret of successful open data innovation is to be with people working to solve some specific problem.  Simply releasing the data is not enough. See below a summary of our Do’s and Don’ts of opening up data


  1. Make sure data quality is high (ODI Certificates can help!)
  2. Promote innovation using data sets. Transparency is only a means to an end
  3. Enhance communication with external innovators
  4. Make sure your co-creators are incentivised
  5. Get organised, create a community around an issue
  6. Pass on learnings to other similar organisations
  7. Experiement – open data requires new mindsets and business models
  8. Create safe spaces – Innovation Airlocks – to share and prototype with trusted partners
  9. Be brave – people may do things with the data that you don’t like
  10. Set out to create commercial or social value with data


  1. Just release data and expect people to understand or create with it. Publication is not the same as communication
  2. Wait for data requests, put the data out first informally
  3. Avoid challenges to current income streams
  4. Go straight for the finished article, use rapid prototyping
  5. Be put off by the tensions between confidentiality, data protection and publishing
  6. Wait for the big budget or formal process but start big things with small amounts now
  7. Be technology led, be business led instead
  8. Expect the community to entirely self-manage
  9. Restrict open data to the IT literate – create interdisciplinary partnerships
  10. Get caught in the false dichotomy that is commercial vs. social

In summary we believe we need to assume openness as the default (for organisations that is, not individuals) and secrecy as the exception – the exact opposite to how most commercial organisations currently operate. It’s an exciting time but we still have a lot to learn about how best to make that transition towards transparency. And those organisations that can proactively embrace the transition towards transparency will fare much better than those who have openness forced upon them.


This post was originally posted on the UK Open Data Institute blog here.

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