Public data should be available for public benefit and it is we humans who add real value to open data, putting it to innovative use from generating maps for relief efforts to pinpointing crime hotspots. That was a key message from Professor Nigel Shadbolt FREng, Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Southampton.

Speaking to a packed theatre on 22 February as guest lecturer in the Royal Academy of Engineering Technology Visionaries series, Professor Shadbolt said that data has transformative power and that, when you make it accessible on a large scale, people can develop remarkable things from it and benefit society. He said: "People have the vision to turn resources openly available into something special. Open data is not just about technology but people collaborating and working together."

To illustrate his point, Professor Shadbolt showed how a detailed open street map of the Haitian capital Port au Prince was created within just 12 days of the recent earthquake, as people on the ground with GPS devices uploaded information. “The map proved crucial to relief efforts and demonstrated the power of open standards in action,” he said.

While Professor Shadbolt believes that opening up UK government data is resulting in similar useful applications for raw data, he said that the project was originally driven by a desire for transparency and accountability. While this remains the case, there is now more of a focus on how the data can be used to benefit the public sector, society at large and even to generate revenue.

All parties stand to gain from open data. The government has seen benefits and businesses and local councils have saved money by publishing information online. The public takes notice when for example a mobile app makes a difference to their lives, thanks to the use of open data,” he said.

A government app that plots local crime data on a map of a user’s local area based on a postcode receives the most visits of any government website and is the result of using open data from the UK police forces.

“There is evidence that if you put government data out there, people will build applications and have new ideas how to use it. Public data should be available for public benefit and we need licenses for the public to re-use data in any way they choose, he said.

Of course, such freedom brings with it fears about privacy and the responsible interpretation of the data. Professor Shadbolt said that having data on the web enables more scrutiny, leading to more discussion about the validity of interpretations and the data.

Professor Shadbolt is currently working on the midata project, which aims to get consumers’ data back from government and business and put in a format where it is easy for consumers to organise and control the use of their information, proving that this type of data can empower individuals. He also extolled the virtues of the linked web (or semantic web) and called for the use of more open licences and structured data with unique Uniform Resource Identifiers (URIs) to facilitate the beginning of a linked web of information.

A video of the lecture is available on

Notes for editors

  1. Founded in 1976, The Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.
  2. As well as his role as Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Southampton, Professor Nigel Shadbolt is a Fellow of The Royal Academy of Engineering and British Computer Society. In 2009 the Prime Minister appointed Professor Shadbolt (and Sir Tim Berners-Lee OM KBE FREng FRS) as Information Advisors. Shadbolt joined the Public Sector Transparency Board in 2011 as well as becoming Chair of the UK Government midata programme and co-director of the Open Data Institute.

For more information please contact

Jane Sutton at The Royal Academy of Engineering
Tel. 020 7766 0636; email: Jane Sutton