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Open Data: A Strategy For Innovation

Organizations typically keep their data walled off from outsiders, and within companies, business units often operate in silos with little interaction outside their domains. But organizations stand to gain by adopting a strategy of open data and collaboration, both internally or with external customers and stakeholders.

That was the message of a Thursday keynote at Interop New York by Mark Headd, chief data officer for the city of Philadelphia, and Michelle Lee, co-founder and CEO of Textizen, a platform for text-message surveys. An open strategy can foster innovation and generate business value, they said.

"Openness is a real strategy any organization can use to drive value," Headd said. "You need to be ready for innovation when it occurs and capitalize on it."

The city of Philadelphia is putting openness into practice, thanks to the city's Open Data Executive Order, which mayor Michael A. Nutter signed in April 2012. In 2013, the city released 46 data sets that citizens and organizations can leverage.

"We're exposing our data through open interfaces and APIs," said Headd. Via the city's API documentation and code samples, Philadelphia is finding opportunities to work with other entities and businesses.

[More for Interop: Cisco CEO John Chambers took to the keynote stage to discuss the future of the network.]

For example, the local gas utility used to have the city ship them a CD of residents’ addresses each year. When the company got a request for new service, it used the CD to verify the address. Now the utility uses an API to verify, in real time, a customer’s address.

Municipalities and other organizations interested in adopting an open strategy need to make sure people can readily find the data and understand why they should use it, Headd said. "It needs to be more than, 'Generate value for me.'"

Organizations should start small and scale fast by initially picking data that isn't as sensitive, he said, adding that there will be speed bumps along the way.

Headd and Lee also outlined four qualities of open data to help people and organizations take advantage of it. Open data should be described, so that other parties understand what it is; documented, so other parties know how to use it; discoverable, because people need to find it; and incentivized, so people and organizations know what’s in it for them.

Of course, it’s one thing to preach a message of openness. It’s another thing to get an organization to embrace it, or to get entities that hold the data to share it. Lee noted that sometimes it requires a mandate from an executive. Headd recalled how Mayor Nutter got behind the idea for sharing city data when the mayor attended a hackathon being sponsored by SEPTA, the regional transportation agency, where attendees created apps such as real-time schedule look-ups to improve rider services.

Lee noted that it may take creative thinking to convince data owners to share. “Every data owner has their own incentives,” she said. “You need to find those incentives.”