‘Imagine it’s 1995, and someone comes to you and says you need a website. You say “why?”. Now trillions of dollars of revenue is generated, millions are working in web, billions are using it. All of this was the web of documents. We are now building the web of data – this will dwarf the web of documents... Massive computing power has been democratised, meaning we can process data at scale and achieve frightening economies of scale. Citizen science and startups will disrupt traditional business models. One small startup of five people can index a million sensors in real time. The level of disruption seen in the last twenty years is a drop on the ocean compared to what’s coming.’ (Gavin Starks, Open Data Institute)

Influencers and vision

The UK's drive for data and tech innovation is championed by influential thought leaders including Sir Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the World Wide Web), Sir Nigel Shadbolt (professor of artificial intelligence), Mike Bracken (from the Guardian, an international leader in data journalism), Baroness Martha Lane-Fox (entrepreneur and startup millionaire) and others.

Sir Berners-Lee's 2009 TED Talk, culminating in the chant 'Raw Data Now', is compulsory viewing for anyone who wants to understand the origins of the open-data movement and the potential of the data-driven web.

Many of these thought leaders are now in key leadership roles for digital initiatives in the UK. Sirs Tim and Nigel are the co-founders of the Open Data Institute (ODI). Baroness Lane-Fox was UK Digital Champion and leads Go ON UK. Mike is the government's Chief Data Officer and head of the Government Digital Service (GDS). All of these initiatives aim for the top, wanting to make Britain the best in the world – to create 'GREAT Britain'.

Open Data Institute

Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Sir Nigel Shadbolt created ODI in 2012 as they saw an opportunity to set something up for open-data leadership that was not government, and could act as an innovation opportunity.

I met with Sir Nigel Shadbolt and Gavin Starks CE to talk about the origins, role and future direction of ODI at their offices in buzzy Shoreditch. This location, well away from Whitehall, was chosen consciously when ODI was founded to place it at the heart of London's Tech City initiative, also known as ‘the Silicon Roundabout’. With hundreds of active startups in the area, ODI is surrounded by innovative talent eager to collaborate and use open data.

Nigel, Evelyn and Gavin

Nigel, Evelyn and Gavin

ODI offices

ODI offices

The ODI’s culture is entrepreneurial, expansionist and dynamic. Gavin brought his strong experience in running tech business startups to the task of making ODI excellent.

The UK government’s investment of £10 million for ODI's first five years was given on the condition that ODI raise matching funding from other sources and become self-sustaining. ODI is committed to doing this, with a business model that is geared to scale up.

ODI’s business plan includes open-data advocacy, innovation and capability development, including international engagement. There has been intensive local and international interest – over 3,000 people visited the ODI offices in their first year of operation. They rapidly built a global network in three areas:

  • Membership – 260 organisations
  • Training – trained 1,600 people in 40 countries in person 
  • Franchise – 23 ‘nodes’ in 18 countries, which sell memberships and deliver training (these ‘nodes’ can be any legal entity that is not government)

Open-data innovation and impact

To foster innovation and generate use and impact from open data, ODI runs a startup incubator. Twenty-five startups joined the programme so far, employing over 100 people and generating over £5 million of value. In the first couple of years ODI provides mentoring, support and product development expertise.

When established, they expected the normal 1 in 10 success rate for startups, but 9 in 10 succeeded. This is because the people selected for the programme have been very impact-focused and financially aware. Support is curated around themes, such as smart cities, consumption of open data, and triple bottom line impact. The smart cities theme has been a stand-out success – partly because no one understands it. Two startups taken in by Arup and hired as internal disrupters.

Startups have mainly been in the UK, with one in the US and one in Paris. While previously ODI’s support was in kind rather than cash, a new grants fund has now been sponsored by the EU – this means ODI will fund open-data startups and SMEs across Europe. A judging panel was established to administer the grants fund.

ODI as startup – 'We are trying to create a new industry here'

Gavin estimates ODI generated £30 million of benefit in its first two and a half years. ODI itself operates as a startup and is growing fast – up to 65 staff this year. It also treats its nodes/franchises as startups.

The initial government funding was vital to give credibility, financial security and a backbone. Within the first few months, ODI already received a second major philanthropic grant from the Amidyar Network (founded by eBay's founder). There is now an increasing income stream from membership, courses and accreditation. While public good guidance also provided for three via free online guides, e-learning and lectures, ODI charges large organisations as much as possible for courses, as this means they are seen as more valuable. ODI's turnover this year (excluding government funding and grants) is over £2 million.

ODI's mission statement is about economic, social and environmental impact. But there is a particularly strong emphasis on economic growth, as this is more likely to generate impact with the private sector. This found resonance with members, commercial partners and the public.

In the near future, ODI will be doing a lot of messaging around:

  • Reducing friction in the economy
  • Utilising data for economic drive
ODI banner

ODI banner

Evelyn on her free bike outside the ODI offices in Shoreditch, London

Evelyn on her free bike outside the ODI offices in Shoreditch, London

Smart Cities: ‘Bristol is Open’

Bristol is in the heat of trialling one of the most innovative ‘smart cities’ initiatives in the UK. It's also the home city of Portishead, Massive Attack and Banksy – having grown up in the 1990s, I was pretty excited to visit! It was inspiring to meet with Dimitra Simeonidou, a professor at the University of Bristol. Dimitra is at the heart of setting up a joint venture between the local government, academics and the business sector. ‘Bristol is Open’ is a project running at full intensity and is currently in its trial period. It builds on six years of research work in network infrastructures at the University of Bristol. The University of Bristol is in the top 30 worldwide for research, with a strong focus on STEM. Dimitra is the technical architect for the project, which is a 50/50 joint venture between the university and city.

‘Bristol is Open’ was created as an independent company to enable interaction with businesses – this is a light way to engage with industry and less bureaucratic than collaborating with a university or council. Bristol is a special city – it is seen as a bit different, quirky and culturally active, with high levels of skilled and educated people. It was voted ‘best place to live’ in the UK in 2014, as well as European Green Capital, and Rockefeller Resilient City. The city knows how to have fun and is a hub for events. Bristol is also the largest digital employment cluster in the UK outside of London with a mix of big companies and startups. An area outside Bristol is known as a local Silicon Valley – this is home to the British Aerospace, IBM research lab, HP research lab, and also an active start-up incubator area – awarded second-best start-up incubator in the world (after Texas).

Challenges for Bristol include traffic congestion, rapid growth, an ageing population, and huge diversity (poverty-wealth, educated-illiterate). The city has a political will for change. It is the only city in the UK other than London that chose to elect its own mayor. Mayor George Ferguson sees Bristol as a ‘laboratory of change’. He is willing to take a risk and create an innovation test bed in Bristol for technology and smart cities – to create ‘the world's first programmable city’.

The fibre infrastructure rolled out for the centre of Bristol provides massive broadband capacity able to serve up to 150 million people, when the city currently has less than 700,000. This was done purposefully so that ‘Bristol is Open’ won't be limited in its potential by hardware capacity. The hardware platform is also vendor neutral to enable multiple vendors and diverse hardware innovators.

The architecture gives capability to slice the infrastructure to a very fine grain through virtualisation. This is intended to enable diverse services and sectors to create their own flavour of services (e.g. parking, health, education, environment monitoring). Each can create its own virtual 'city’ to run for different perspectives. This also provides the potential for communities to create their own view and paths to address their own problems. The project is on a roadmap starting with capable users – including academic researchers and large tech companies. The plan is to expand out to communities, smaller tech companies and independent innovators.

One of the most engaging aspects of Bristol's approach to smart cities is its ability to have fun. Bristol was the originator of the ‘playable’ cities concept – using smart cities to make the city fun and enable citizens to interact with city infrastructure (e.g. bikes, rubbish bins, lamp posts). An inspired move was the transformation of the city's planetarium into a ‘data dome’ to enable large-scale, immersive, high-definition data visualisation.

Park street in Bristol

Park street in Bristol

Bristol Cathedral

Bristol Cathedral

The Data Lab, Scotland

My last stop in the UK was Scotland's recently launched The Data Lab. Scotland has a similar-sized population to New Zealand and is making strong progress on devolution, with the milestones of the independent referendum and the Scottish National Party's 2015 election landslide in the Scottish electorates.

On a whistle-stop trip to the University of Edinburgh, I met with Brian Hills and Roger Halliday, head of Statistics for the Scottish government.

The Data Lab is one of eight Scottish innovation centres set up over last eight years, through a Scottish government investment of £100 million. This investment is driven by an expectation of return to the Scottish economy, leveraging the relationship between business and academia. Similar to New Zealand, Scotland has high academic and government investment in research, but less private sector R&D. The government is looking to sweat the academic asset for more impact. Given this is happening in times of tight economic constraint, there is a high focus on impact.

Launched on October 14, The Data Lab's remit is to leverage the power of data and data science to deliver social and economic benefit to Scotland through three streams of work:

  1. Collaborative innovation working with industry, public sector and academia – The Data Lab is able to fund projects. There is already high demand and a natural pull to startups, as they gravitate towards funding. The Data Lab is also building relationships with large banks and firms interested in R&D. It is currently considering how best to focus in this area and what balance will create the desired high impact.
  2. Education – The Data Lab is funding an MSc degree in Data Science to be delivered by three universities from September 2015, with 40 places available. They will bring industry, public sector and academia together to ensure the programme meets business needs. A key metric will be how many grads find work and stay in Scotland. The Data Lab is also funding up to 25 PhDs, and developing online courses (MOOCs). The aim is to develop data scientists who are rounded in all four core skills.
  3. Community building – The Data Lab is aiming to build a data science community in Scotland. It will bring practitioners informally together to share their work and enable cross-pollination.

One of The Data Lab's first tasks was to map the landscape in Scotland. The aim is to understand the industrial landscape, challenges, academic landscape, other research institutes, innovation funders, and relationships to other UK initiatives.

Roger and Brian at The Data Lab

Roger and Brian at The Data Lab