The news that G8 leaders have signed an Open Data Charter, pledging to “establish an expectation that all government data be published openly by default,” will be music to the ears of many entrepreneurs.

At the G8 summit in Northern Ireland yesterday, it was announced that data will be released in 14 areas, including education, transport, health, and crime and justice. As well as letting citizens hold government to account, the initiative will also help support innovation and drive economic growth, according to the Cabinet Office.

While the value of open data to businesses may not seem immediately obvious, many of the most successful web and mobile applications today are powered by government data. Prime Minister David Cameron acknowledged this fact at the G8 Innovation conference in London last week:

g8-innovation-summit.jpg“Some people may say, what on earth has open data got to do with business? And it only came home to me when I ran a competition for the best team at university who produced a new app,” he said.

“Almost every single team in the room had created that app out of information the government had made available - whether it was health waiting lists, which schools were the best, which street you’re least likely to be mugged on...

“What I hadn’t fully understood, but what I now do understand, is the data government owns is one of the most precious things it has in terms of helping your economy to grow.”

In the past, governments have not always shared their data in ways that are easily discoverable, usable, or understandable by the public. This has made it difficult for some start-ups and small businesses to integrate the data into their applications.

As part of its pledge to release data for innovation, the G8 countries have now specified that they will:

  • support the release of data using open licences or other relevant instruments - while respecting intellectual property rights - so that no restrictions or charges are placed on the re-use of the information for non-commercial or commercial purposes, save for exceptional circumstances;
  • ensure data are machine readable in bulk by providing data that are well structured to allow automated processing and access with the minimum number of file downloads;
  • release data using application programming interfaces (APIs), where appropriate, to ensure easy access to the most regularly updated and accessed data; and
  • encourage innovative uses of our data through the organisation of challenges, prizes or mentoring for data users in our individual jurisdictions.

These measures should make it much simpler for technology companies and developers to gain access to the raw material that will enable them to create apps and data-led businesses.

Of course, it is only a pledge at the moment. Each member of the G8 still needs to publish an open data action plan laying out how they will make more data available, in line with the charter and its principles.

The UK government has already taken steps in this direction with the launch of the Open Data Institute, headed up by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt. Over 40,000 data files are now available on data.gov.uk, according to Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude, and the UK is also lead co-chair of the Open Government Partnership.

Meanwhile, the Cabinet Office has announced plans to release new datasets from the Charity Commission. HM Revenue & Customs has committed also itself to a public consultation this summer on releasing parts of the VAT register as open data, and Land Registry has confirmed it is to publish historical Price Paid Data (PPD) in CSV format as linked data from July.

However, simply declaring data public does not automatically make it practical or meaningful, and making use of open data is about more than just technology - people, processes and infrastructure have to be integrated and users need to be educated in how to access, make use of and store data in a responsible manner.

It is the entrepreneurs that understand these challenges and work out how to manage them that will make money from government data, and ultimately drive economic growth.

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