SDG 9: Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation

Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt FREng
Principal and Professorial Research Fellow in Computer Science
Jesus College, University of Oxford
Gavin Starks
CEO, Open Data Institute

Human societies change when resources become either plentiful or scarce. The agrarian revolution saw food become available at a scale, and with a reliability, never seen before. The industrial revolution saw manufactured goods become available at levels and costs not previously seen. We are now in the midst of a data revolution. Data is following the same path as food and manufactured goods before it.

Data is not like food or manufactured goods, however. Those resources are rivalrous. If you consume them or buy them then they are no longer available to anyone else. One of the greatest challenges of the modern world is how to distribute resources equitably and use them sustainably.

When we build our infrastructures for the 21st century — energy and transport, housing and agriculture — we worry about how we will afford them, make them available and do so in a way that does not diminish resources for future generations. The data revolution does not play by these rules. At the Open Data Institute (ODI), we have been working to promote the use of data at web-scale to support open innovation, providing knowledge for everyone.

Data as infrastructure, not as goods

Data does not have to be a rival good. Your possession of it does not detract from my possession of it. If you use it then it does not become unusable by me. Of course, we can set up payment and protection systems around data and we must protect people’s privacy. But at the ODI, we have been showing the benefits of a data infrastructure that is as open as possible. Certain data has maximal use and value the more widely it is shared and used. Data is a new class of public infrastructure for the 21st century. It is all around us and easy to miss. We need to view it as an infrastructure that is as fundamental to modern society as power and transport, and that requires investment, curation and protection. Data is an infrastructure that, engineered correctly, can generate extraordinary amounts of economic value.

When the human genome was first sequenced in 2000 there was a race to patent that data. In fact it took a 2013 judgement of the US Supreme Court to rule that the genome could not be patented. The value that has accrued from that decision1 has eclipsed a monopolistic assignment of genomic data to a particular organisation. When Transport for London (TfL) made its transport data openly available in 20102, it had a transformational impact on the data ecosystem – a flowering of apps and companies using that data to provide services that we all use as we get around one of the great cities of the world more efficiently. Those apps and companies now form part of a global market as transport services around the world open up their data to a common standard. Moreover, TfL calculated that its decision had a return of investment of 58:13. These examples demonstrate that open data generates huge economic returns. 

We believe that part of the duty of a modern state is to provide open data infrastructure and promote open standards to make them globally interoperable. We are beginning to see in the open data initiatives around the world what this common public data infrastructure might look like.

Types of data

Geospatial data, such as administration regions, maps and addresses, are a vital building block for open data infrastructure. Everything happens somewhere. Lists of legal entities (both public and private sector), company directors and beneficial ownership registers help us link data together and understand which organisation is responsible for particular activities. Meanwhile, specific sectors have their own infrastructural needs. Health needs lists of hospitals, surgeries, practitioners and procedures. Transport needs rail and bus stations, airports, timetables, fares and real-time travel information. Democracy needs lists of elections, results, candidates and places where people can vote. In each case both research and experience show us that to maximise value the data infrastructure must be open and used by as many people as possible.

Data infrastructure is an asset that needs to be invested in. It needs to be curated to make sure that the data is as up-to-date and accurate as needed. Data needs to be protected from abuse by bad actors and, in many cases, recognised as critical national infrastructure. It needs to be designed for openness and the global web of data. We need to encourage agility and open innovation in both how the data is maintained and how it’s used. An effective, efficient and equitable data infrastructure will generate value for this and succeeding generations.

1 Open data overview, Scottish Governement
2 Digital Strategy 2010-13 (PDF), TfL
3 Open data overview, Scottish Governement