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When Open Data meets personal data

Posted on: Monday 4th of February 2013


A few years ago, as part of the Open Data movement, Transport for London begin releasing data about the movements of buses and tubes through London.

Big deal.  So what? What does it matter to most Londoners if the 137 Clapham Omnibus is running three minutes late at half past three on a Tuesday afternoon?

Well, it could matter a lot to those Londoners waiting for the 137 to arrive. And now, there are a wide range of apps that use this data to tell you. Simply pop your local bus stop and bus route into your mobile app and you can see when your bus is due to arrive before you even leave home. So you don’t have the frustration of seeing it disappear into the distance just as you get there. And you don’t have to wait ten minutes in the cold wondering when it’s going to arrive. Now that is cool.

There’s two important things to note here. First, the addition of just two tiny pieces of information ‘from me’ (my bus stop, my bus route) resolves a vast collection of personally useless and irrelevant data (all the buses’ movements across of all London) down to a well-nigh perfect information service: exactly the information I need, when I need it, where I need it.

Second, for this to happen, the data had to opened up in the first place; made available as a common resource. Open Data on its own has many potential benefits. The connection between the Open Data, which tells me something new about the world I live in, and personal data about my specific needs and priorities, has the potential to spark a particularly powerful value explosion.

Layer upon layer

Our bus app needn’t stop there. Why not link the same open data about transport movements in London to my diary to create a mini ‘transport concierge’ that makes planning and making my journeys as hassle-free as possible? It needn’t just be buses. It could factor in tubes and taxis too. It could factor in real time news about traffic problems. It could add a neat little calculator that tells me ‘right now, this journey will take you 35 minutes and cost you £4.50 by public transport, and 28 minutes and £13.50 by taxi’. All at your finger tips.

Each element involves the addition of an extra layer of data (about tubes, taxis, traffic, weather etc) or an extra layer of service/functionality. The time/money choice engine is one example. Privacy management and protection is another. Linking to a diary involves the sharing of much more detailed, intimate information about myself than my local bus stop, so I need to be absolutely confident this data is not going to be abused.

New feedback loops

But the evolution needn’t stop there. What happened if such a diary-linking service aggregated anonymised data from hundreds of thousands of Londoner’s electronic diaries? At some point, this aggregated data could become incredibly useful to transport service providers. At the moment for example, Oyster collects detailed data about how people use the transport system. But it doesn’t know where travellers actually start their journey and where they want to get to – what happens before and after they use the system. The new aggregation service could provide such visibility helping them redesign routes and timetables and even plan for upcoming events. In other words, the data could feed back into improving the operations of the system itself.

This is just one, tiny, example of how creating new connections between Open Data and personal data has the potential to spark innovative services, new business models and new business, social and personal benefits. What’s true in travel and transport is also true in health, education, environmental issues, financial services – any time, place or occasion where, to get something done or make a more informed decision, I need to connect some ‘information from and about me’ (my circumstances, my plans, my preferences and priorities) with ‘information about the world out there’.

Breaking new ground

We had a fascinating evening discussing these opportunities at our Explorers’ Club meeting last week. Thanks very much to the Open Data Institute for hosting the event and to Professor Nigel Shadbolt, Chairman of the ODI, for introducing it. And thanks too to all those who attended for their wealth of inspirational ideas.

The opportunities are clearly massive. So too (of course) are the challenges, including enabling  data sources, ensuring data quality, creating enabling infrastructure, designing rewards and incentives and ensuring privacy protection for individuals are just some. This is rich, new territory which urgently needs exploring.

Watch our for our forthcoming White Paper which will do just that.

The picture below shows Nigel Shadbolt, Chair of the Open Data Institute, giving his introduction to the event.