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Open Sesame

Innovation Times – The Federal blog

Posted by JR Reagan on February 7, 2014

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In an ancient folk tale, when the magical phrase “Open Sesame” was uttered, the mouth of a cave opened to disclose the treasures hidden within. On May 9, 2013, President Obama declared “Open Data,” signing an executive order that holds the potential to unlock a modern-day reserve of riches.

The Open Data Executive Order and the policies that support its implementation “require that, going forward, newly generated government data shall be made freely available in open, machine-readable formats, while appropriately safeguarding privacy, confidentiality, and security.”

This is a Big Deal for Big Data, and could lead to transformative technologies in every industry.

A national treasure

A White House press release issued the same day noted that these federal initiatives “declare that information is a valuable national asset whose value is multiplied when it is made easily accessible to the public.” Said President Obama, “…we’re making it easier for people to find the data and use it, so that entrepreneurs can build products and services we haven’t even imagined yet” (emphasis added).

Innovators with newly granted access to government data will use it to create apps and products designed to save lives (or in the least make them more efficient and enjoyable), and services custom-tailored to meet the needs of the communities they serve. They’ll launch new companies, re-imagine existing industries, and create jobs in the process.

Open access to information, already a driving force behind the economy, will become even more essentially tied to its growth.

In the past, releasing government data for public use has not merely revolutionized industries; it’s created them. As examples, the White House press release points to weather and GPS data. “The public release of weather data from government satellites and ground stations generated an entire economic sector that today includes the Weather Channel, commercial agricultural advisory services, and new insurance options.”

And all those location-specific apps we’ve downloaded to our mobile devices would never have been possible without the GPS technology that was developed for the military, and later released for civilian use. They’ve become a massive business, contributing an estimated $90 billion to the economy each year, according to Todd Park, the nation’s Chief Technology Officer.

Open data’s new frontiers

Some of the transformative changes possible with open data are taking place already. Because the Census Bureau opened access to the data it collects, Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA) is better able to plan for disasters based on housing risk factors, as reported in (May 23, 2013).

In New York City, which also champions open data, Chief Digital Officer Rachel Haot reported in an interview that firefighters can now do their jobs more safely, knowing in advance the risks specific buildings may pose. Casualties to the city’s firefighters are down by 15 percent. Ambulances can deliver patients to emergency rooms more quickly using location information about hospital ERs. Average response times have improved by a full minute.

Not all open-data applications are lifesavers. Some focus on improving the life experience. A winning submission app in the competition has gone global and now serves 70 cities in the world. The app culls data from hundreds of sources, and delivers it to mobile devices using what it calls “a universal digital language for urban living centered around the areas of transportation, navigation and entertainment.” Data, combined with personal preferences, guides users to everything from public restrooms and parking spaces to trending local hotspots. In addition to the MyCityWay app for consumers, the company also partners with businesses to offer custom-tailored mobile solutions.

Another award-winning project, 596 Acres, takes data on NYC-owned vacant lots and publicizes the information online and with signs. It acts as an advocate to help communities with little public space to turn these lots into commons areas or gardens.

Full steam ahead

In a 2012 white paper, Deloitte Analytics looked at open data in the UK, and outlined a vision of where it may take that nation. Deloitte UK foresees four trends:

  1. Every business will have a strategy to exploit the rapidly growing estate of open data
  2. Businesses will increasingly open up their data to revolutionize the way they compete
  3. Businesses will use open data to inspire customer engagement
  4. Businesses will work with the government to establish a new paradigm in data responsibility and privacy

In the U.S., at the time of this writing, Data.Gov, which serves as hub of open government data, offers access to more than 70,000 datasets from 170 agencies and sub-agencies. With the announcement of the Open Data Executive Order, it promised to add new services and tools to help make data more useful, and to continue to release additional data sets.

In addition, the Federal Chief Information Officer and Chief Technology Officer have launched Project Open Data, a source for plug-and-play tools and best practices to help anyone from private citizens to businesses to government agencies implement open data solutions.

As part of the open data initiatives, the Obama administration is also planning a series of summits “to highlight how these innovators use open data to positively impact the public and address important national challenges.” In June, the Health Datapalooza brought together policy makers, medical professionals, scientists, entrepreneurs and others to explore how data can improve healthcare. Says Bob Kocher, the event’s co-chair and a partner at Venrock, “The Health Datapalooza is the best place to witness the power, progress, and potential of big data from the government and private sector to make our health system better sooner!”

The “Open Sesame” analogy seems quite a fitting one. The promises offered by open data – a boon for businesses and the economy, more jobs, and healthier and more satisfying lives – are quite a treasure trove indeed.

As used in this document, “Deloitte” means Deloitte & Touche LLP, a subsidiary of Deloitte LLP. Please see for a detailed description of the legal structure of Deloitte LLP and its subsidiaries. Certain services may not be available to attest clients under the rules and regulations of public accounting.

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