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September 19, 2011 at 8:57 pm

Open Data to the next level: WHY and HOW to involve the private sector

The attention of civil society and policy makers is now turning to uncharted lands: open data from the private sector can be mashed-up with governmental data to create new apps and services. The Open Data portal created by Enel – a leading Italian power company – is a step in the right direction

While the open data movement is spreading within public sector – with very interesting initiatives both at local and international level – the attention of civil society and policy makers has turned to an uncharted land, that is the open data from the private sector. The need to involve businesses in the open data movement emerged quite clearly at the first European Digital Agenda Assembly, held in Brussels on 16-17 June 2011. In particular, the European Commission aims at stimulating more private participation in the open data initiatives, and is considering specific actions to promote the re-use of big datasets held by large private sector organizations.

Professor Nigel Shadbolt, a member of the UK Government’s Public Sector Transparency Board, outlines the benefits of an open data strategy in an article published in Think Quarterly. “Open data offers the prospect of instant connectivity between partners, as in open supply chains, where businesses source from places they might never have considered or even suspected could be a source. Open data can reduce integration costs, improve transparency and harness the innovation of others. If you release your data then others will develop applications that make best use of it – providing new services that benefit you directly, like all of those free travel apps that the travel companies didn’t have to write, but which nevertheless drive people onto the transportation network”.

Following the example of other companies such as SimpleGEO from the US, Enel – Italy’s largest power company and a key player in the European market – is now opening up a first set of datasets. The company, which originally launched an open data portal on 23 August under Creative Commons BY NC ND license disallowing commercial re-use, earlier today changed the license to a CC BY, merely requiring re-users to mention Enel as the source of data. Datasets include economic and financial information about the company and “sustainability data”, which comprise data on generation, distribution and sale of electricity and gas.

Raffaele Cirullo, head of New Media unit at Enel, reports on Enel strategies to the Spaghetti Open Data (SOD) mailing list. As a first step, an initiative entitled Enel Sharing was launched in 2008 to harness the power of social media to promote the brand amongst stakeholders and disseminate the cultural initiatives of the company. Then the unit focused on emerging innovations in the field of new media as a way to introduce a new culture of sharing within the group. Open data is of course one of the most interesting paradigm shifts, with major marketing impact within the private sector. These are the main goals of Enel Open Data initiative:

  1. improve the market by fostering competition
  2. increase transparency by increasing participation
  3. favor technological innovation by encouraging the development and spreading of new applications, mash-ups and data visualization systems.

Personally, I very much share the opinion of Lorenzo Benussi – researcher at NEXA Center for Internet & Society of Politecnico di Torino – who jumped in the discussion with a message to the SOD mailing list on the eventual advantages of the diffusion of the open data model in the private sector. First, open financial data on corporate accounting may lead to a more effective control of global markets. Secondly, information on businesses assets, processes and activities is of great interest to the public and can be mashed-up with governmental data on the matter. Some examples: information about natural resources provided by the oil industry, power and communication grids, ships logistics, etc.

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