When developers, designers, statisticians, librarians and members of the public in 120 cities around the world come together for a day-long themed event, as they did for the 2013 International Open Data Hackathon in late February, it’s safe to say that ‘open data’ is an idea that is getting a lot of people interested.
‘Open data’ is the belief that information should be freely and easily available for everyone to use and re-use as they wish without the need to comply with complex licensing requirements.
Governments around the world have been investing heavily in opening up data in this way – the data.gov.uk portal was launched in 2009, and at the start of 2013 the European Union (EU) Commission began the rollout of its own open data portal. Rachel Bruce, director of digital infrastructure innovation at Jisc says: “For government bodies, opening up access to data allows them to be seen as transparent in their decision-making and dealings. It also helps to engage their citizens and speed up innovative processes.”
The message boards on the data.gov.uk website show that not-for-profit organisations and commercial operations are using open data to develop products and services – it’s being used in data modelling for insurance purposes, to spot and analyse public health trends, and to map crime and accident blackspots.
Director of digital infrastructure innovation, Jisc
And it is not just large organisations that can benefit from the availability of large volumes of openly available data. Rachel says: “Open data can be used to break down traditional barriers, so that small and medium-sized businesses can access it and feed it into their research and development processes, and large institutions can share information across departments so that, for example, crime statistics can be joined up with data in social services teams to offer fresh insights and inform political and economic research.
“For any organisation working with open data, one of the major challenges is getting to grips with the diverse datasets that are typical, but colleges and universities are in a better position than most, because they inevitably already have people with the skills to make sense of the flood of information and to analyse it effectively.”
Here’s how open data could work for you:
Jisc programme manager, Andy McGregor says: “Open data has the potential to help transform every aspect of library and information services management, from the way collections are developed and used, to supporting student attainment through tailored services and interventions, and even making sure that readers know where they can get a quick snack. By sharing data from the various catering operations on campus, the University of Southampton’s open data service makes it possible to locate the nearest available chocolate bar, wherever you are on site. That might sound like a frivolous example, but when a student needs to burn the midnight oil, it really isn’t. Southampton’s open data service is enabling departments and also other universities to explore ways to share and re-use data in fresh ways.
“By making room useage information openly available, students from the Universities of Lincoln, Hull and the Open University were able to run an experiment to show how much easier it could be to locate convenient meeting rooms via Twitter, and at the University of Cambridge, the decision to make all library data available via API led a student to develop the Library Search app, which has been reviewed in academic forums.
“For institutional libraries the race is on to marshall all the useage and other data they generate and see how it can be made to work harder, to improve and tailor services. Jisc is supporting that process via its Library Analytics and Metrics Project (JiscLAMP).”
Programme manager, Jisc
Making data about publicly-funded research openly available is a core priority for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), to drive economic growth and innovation, and it is funding the Gateway to Research project to make that happen.
Programme manager Neil Jacobs at Jisc says: “Researchers will benefit from the project because it will help them to identify collaborators and reduce the time it takes to develop ideas: it might also take them into previously unimagined new aspects of their work. Commercial enterprises are already seeing positive results – some of which are included in a Jisc report on the benefits of open access to the private sector.”
Take the example of White Design, which is mentioned in the report. It is an architectural practice specialising in the design of low carbon buildings, which found the data it needed to quantify the benefits of its straw bale construction process in an American open access document from the US fuel industry.
Neil points out: “Being able to demonstrate the value of a piece of research to the commercial sector is powerful evidence of the reach of an institution’s research outputs.
“But this all throws up significant challenges too. The sheer volume means that data centres are going to come increasingly into their own as a means to manage and marshall material, and new methodologies are having to be developed.”
Huge opportunities are opening up as technology enables institutions to record and analyse the ways in which people are using services – ‘activity data’ – to gain insights and plan improvements to the learning experience.
Jisc’s programme manager Ruth Drysdale says: “When this data is openly available it becomes possible to link datasets and make new discoveries. We can collate data from the whole student lifecycle and examine it to tailor resources more efficiently. With this precision at the individual level it ensures that every student can be stretched and supported to reach their full potential.”
The Library Impact Data Project, led by the University of Huddersfield, has shown that there are good grounds for checking that all is well with a student who is not using the library’s e-resources, and also that there are clear patterns that emerge in the ways the different genders and ethnicities and those with disabilities use library resources. All this information could be the starting point for tailored approaches.
And at the University of Roehampton, activity data from the library was used in the Department of Psychology to trigger interventions. Student progression rates improved by 14 per cent and the same techniques are now being used in more departments.
Ruth says: “Open data offers lots of fresh opportunities for colleges and universities to develop new services and methodologies, though it also brings tricky issues, particularly focused on copyright, data protection issues, and analytical methods.”
The administration functions of HE and FE institutions routinely collect large volumes of data. Opening up large data samples means that control of their use is lost as people discover new uses for it. So it’s important that institutions optimise collection processes, tackle repetition and accuracy issues, and consider legal and ethical implications. Jisc has produced the CETIS Analytics Series: Legal, Risk and Ethical Aspects of Analytics in Education to help.
And there’s a potential danger that, as the appetite for open data grows, the burden on admin teams could grow. Organisations such as the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) are working on ways to collect more useful data and to make that openly available, but they are also working with BIS on developing a more streamlined approach so that the workload for institutions will actually reduce.
Jisc programme manager Myles Danson, has been working with a number of organisations to see how data can best be used to improve strategic planning, and to help colleges and universities to benchmark their activities against others.
The result is a new Infokit, due to be published this month. It contains examples of the ways in which universities and colleges have been working with open data to feed into their business intelligence, and offers helpful tips and words of warning.
Myles says: “Examples contained in the Infokit include the University of Sheffield, which has been working with data from external providers. While that was useful and of good quality, it presented real problems. The team found themselves quickly overwhelmed by the 3Vs (volume, variety and velocity), but also recognised the value in finding and actioning useful insights within the data samples.”
Myles says, “The use of open data brings fresh challenges, and we are working on approaches to make these more manageable. While we do that, I’d encourage every FE and HE institution to choose a pressing issue for them, and to make a start on working with open data to find new insights to bring about competitive advantage.
“There’s no doubt that open data can help them to improve productivity, to make better strategic decisions and boost learner success. People talk a lot about the information explosion and how to manage it, but there’s no need to be afraid of that. Institutions have the skills in house to cope.”
Programme manager, Jisc