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The powerful promise of open data and the network effect

More data points exist than we can count. The more people can see data, the more people can use it to solve the world's biggest problems.

Big Data’s applications are many and variegated — simulating climate change impacts, optimizing agricultural supply chains and improving building efficiency, to name a few — but its potential is constrained by the availability and accessibility of digital information.

There’s plenty of data out there, but much of it remains closed to the world due to concerns about security by consumers or competition by businesses. Even freely available data may be unreadable due to a lack of common formats or searchability.

That’s why businesses and governments increasingly are pushing for open data policies to enable more collaboration, partnerships and innovation. That was a major theme at the GreenBiz VERGE event in San Jose, California, this week. Open data is simply data that anyone can access, use and share.

Power of networks

But opening data isn’t good enough; you have to be able to do something with it, said Gavin Starks, CEO of the Open Data Institute. More companies are turning to open sets of data to solve some of the most vexing problems in business and cities, including in energy, food, water and supply chains.

"A lot of what we hear is fear, uncertainty and doubt," Starks said, explaining that companies worry about intellectual property, security and income loss. 

Yet he likened the promise of open data to that of the Internet, whose "father," Tim Berners-Lee, is co-founder of the Open Data Institute. Starks asked: How do we use the power of networks but not in the way we used to, but in a Web-connected way? "It’s not just about machines, not just about humans, it’s about how things come together," he said.

Building trust

Electric utilities collect massive amounts of valuable data, but rarely make it publicly available, as there are legal and security risks galore. But what if opening up this information could unlock innovation on a wide scale?

In a talk about harnessing data to foster climate-smart cities, Ana Pinheiro Privette, founder and principal of Climate Data Solutions, said she helped alter Pacific Gas & Electric’s governance approach to climate change.

Privette approached PG&E about opening data about its subsystems, which the utility fiercely guards. Although the utility didn’t disclose that data, she said it was inspired to launch an internal effort to analyze information about its subsystems through a climate lens, and released some of that to Privette and her organization.

Indeed, opening up utility data is the best way to move toward "Grid 2.0," said Dawn Lippert, co-founder and director of Energy Excelerator, which helps companies seeking to innovate in energy in the Hawaii and Asia Pacific regions.

10,000 heads are better than one

“It’s not just about machines, not just about humans, it’s about how things come together,” said Robin Chase, founder CEO of Zipcar.

Digital technologies, crowdsourcing and open data are broadening the number of players who can get involved in any number of endeavors.

“More networked minds are greater than fewer proprietary minds,” she said. “The benefit of shared open assets is always larger than problems of open assets.” And likewise, shared networked assets deliver more value than closed assets.

Chase highlighted how Airbnb offers more rooms than the world's biggest hotel chains, and has gotten there in a stunningly short time by crowdsourcing beds. Opening data to social networks allows many minds to turn it into something useful or innovative.

“If data are not connected, not moving, then you are leaving value on the table — and this is very much a cultural shift,” said Gavin Starks.

Particularly in government, loads of data is publicly available but remains untapped. NASA astronaut Cady Coleman said the space agency collects reams of data in space that can’t be gathered on Earth, and even "open sources" it to benefit businesses, but much of it continues to go unused. Companies can use this information to "make better stuff," Coleman said.

Building on open data

The building industry stands to gain much from open data, given the lack of transparency around what constitutes the most basic materials and how their large footprints affect climate change and human health.

To address this, Google, Flux, the nonprofit Healthy Building Network and the consultancy Thinkstep just launched the Quartz database, which describes the health and environmental impacts of 100 building products.

The open source tool —  the first of its kind with a Creative Commons-license —  aims to standardize the industry’s current supply of "isolated, disjointed data into an open database of relevant, valuable and actionable information that is well organized and easy to understand."

"This will evolve how people consume this data, and result in bringing about a level playing field for these early design decisions," said Larry Kilroy of the Healthy Building Network, during a launch demo Wednesday.

Aggregation assuages privacy fears

Some might worry that with so much data being collected and analyzed, personal privacy could be compromised.

San Diego, for example, has partnered with GE to launch an intelligent cities pilot project in the Gaslamp District, installing smart sensors for lighting and other applications. In addition to helping to optimize lighting, the sensors also could be used to track parking violations and monitor traffic flows.

David Graham, COO for neighborhood services in San Diego, said that the open source data could one day be used for apps that help people find open parking spaces, and more.

“The open data capabilities here really are limitless,” he said.

But San Diegans can rest easy, knowing that the data collection is focused on overall trends, not individual behavior. Nobody is snapping photos of license plates, he said.

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