Meet Open Data Institute's Lisa Allen

Unlocking the Benefits

© Lead Image © GloriaSanchez,

© Lead Image © GloriaSanchez,

Article from Issue 272/2023

The Open Data Institute's Lisa Allen explains why open data matters and what it will take for more widespread adoption.

World Wide Web creator Tim Berners-Lee cofounded the Open Data Institute (ODI) to help foster a freer Internet. We asked Lisa Allen, Director of Data and Services for ODI, to talk about the group's mission and the path ahead.

Linux Magazine (LM): How about if we start with a little history? What is the Open Data Institute? How did it get started and why?

Lisa Allen (LA): The Open Data Institute is a nonprofit company that was founded in 2012 (we celebrated our 10th anniversary last year!) by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Sir Nigel Shadbolt. We operate as an institute and a data services provider, collaborating with businesses, governments, and civil society to create a world where data works for everyone.

We were originally established to champion the value of open data and to advocate for its innovative use in bringing about positive change. In the early days, we argued that social, economic, and environmental change would come about through the wide-scale adoption and understanding of open data. The global open banking movement began with a working group co-chaired by the ODI, and now over six million consumers in the UK alone benefit. We also incubated startup companies early on, companies that went on to create 1,000 jobs and generate £100 million (~$125 million) in revenues. Today we work across the data spectrum, helping organizations share data across this spectrum.

LM: Your mission is so diverse. On one hand, you develop tools for open data. On the other hand, you have an advocacy role. Then you have this role that seems to be built around defining what open data is and developing guidelines for responsible data stewardship. How does all this fit together? How would you describe the priorities? Where does your organization spend most of its time?

LA: Our vision is to create a world where data works for everyone, and we aim to achieve this by building an open, trustworthy data ecosystem through our work with businesses, governments, and civil society. For us we believe that data is a critical part of the national infrastructure, as important as the roads, railways, and the electricity networks on which we all rely. Therefore improving the data practices of organizations is important so they can build and manage effective data infrastructure. We do this by providing a broad range of services including training, expert consultancy, and applied research, to equip organizations with the ability to generate social and economic value. We also develop products and services, run a membership program, and work to inform, and build an understanding of, public policy development. While it is a broad range of services, they are vital components to building an open and trustworthy data ecosystem.

LM: The term "open data" gets so abstract. Are there specific formats or frameworks you recommend? Can you point to some specific practices you most want users to adopt?

LA: We define open data as data that anyone can access, use, and share. So rather than specific formats or frameworks, we believe in Sir Tim Berners-Lee's 5 Star Linked Data system, so that data is available on the web, machine-readable, in a nonproprietary format, published using open standards, and links to other data. This is the journey that we all need to go through to unlock the value of data. Licensing is key and making use of open licenses such as Creative Commons can be transformational. For instance, introducing the Open Government License in the UK had a dramatic effect on the availability and usability of public data.

LM: Our readership of developers and Linux power users find your tools to be of particular interest. Tell us more about your Data Toolkit for Business and Data and Public Services Toolkit, as well as other tools you're proud of.

LA: We produce many free tools and guides to help people manage, use, and publish data. The Data Toolkit for Business and the Data and Public Services Toolkit have much in common – ultimately, they both aim to help people overcome barriers to using data effectively and bring together a range of tools to help in different settings. Two elements they have in common are the Data Ecosystem Mapping tool and the Data Ethics Canvas, and those are things we're really proud of. We recently learned that both of these tools were incorporated into a toolkit created by the United Nations Development Programme and the GIZ (Germany's international development office), who join the likes of Microsoft, OCHA (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), and Arup, alongside government departments, academic institutions, and health authorities in the UK and globally, in using them.

LM: It seems to be part of ODI's DNA to evolve with the times. Recently, you've been raising awareness about open data issues surrounding artificial intelligence. How does AI relate to open data? What are your goals in the AI arena?

LA: It's hard to miss all the attention that generative AI has received recently, and the headlines that have accompanied it. But the one thing the different technologies have in common is that they are all dependent on vast amounts of data. The technology will continue to evolve but data will remain an essential prerequisite. We like to think about what are you feeding your AI.

That's why building open and trustworthy data ecosystems is so important. We need more openness and understanding about data sources, the biases contained within, and the impact this can have both negative and positive. We need greater data skills and knowledge to help people understand where AI is at work and for those working with AI.

Well-curated open data is vital here and so is data assurance. We define data assurance as the process, or set of processes, that increase confidence that data will meet a specific need, and that organizations collecting, accessing, using, and sharing data are doing so in trustworthy ways. Data assurance relates to several factors including its quality, supply, and ethics. When considering ethics, users need assurance that the data is appropriately collected, used, and shared. All of these factors can affect the confidence that data is fit for purpose and will meet user requirements. Good, trusted data really matters, and open data is the best foundation for data infrastructure ensuring transparency, accountability, and understanding.

LM: What do you see as the biggest impediments to open data adoption? What is standing in the way right now?

LA: One of the biggest barriers is that people perceive sharing data, especially open data, as high risk. We think this is because people don't necessarily understand the risks that are present in their data, and the risks associated with sharing it, and, importantly, how to mitigate those risks. Recently we have worked on this issue to develop a tool to help people to understand these issues and risks. We have identified five key areas to assess when sharing data: regulatory, security, ethical, reputational, and commercial risk. The biggest thing organizations can do is to understand their data, the risk and mitigation, and, most importantly, the benefits that open data can unlock.

LM: What are some specific examples of things that will get easier if open data is adopted on a massive scale?

LA: The impact of open data in banking and transport is undeniable, benefiting millions of people. Our own work with OpenActive (OA) working with the OA community has had a significant impact, making it easier for people to access physical activity opportunities through open data that were previously locked away. The benefits of these innovations extend far beyond what was initially anticipated. The Environment Agency's open LIDAR data, for example, has had unexpected benefits for archaeology, for example, finding lost Roman roads. The potential benefits of open data are endless. This is unlocked through innovation, as others find creative and innovative ways to use the data; efficiencies, as the open data removes friction and unlocks value; and all the way to building trust by creating transparency. These are all benefits of open data – so the more that is released, then the more that can be unlocked.

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