Book Review: Open Data Now



Cover photo via OpenDataNow

Gavin Starks, CEO of the Open Data Institute, is in a position to spot technological game changers. “We don’t know exactly where Open Data will lead,” he says, “but we do know that it will be transformative…the potential that we saw in the early days of the web is what I see now with Open Data.”


This is the premise of Open Data Now: The Secret to Hot Startups, Smart Investing, Savvy Marketing, and Fast Innovation, a new book from Joel Gurin, senior advisor at The Governance Lab @ NYU.

Open Data Now is written for the business community, but speaks to the experiences of those in the government, the private sector, or those who make a living advocating for consumers.

How can one book offer authority for so many different fields? The task is helped by Gurin’s extensive employment history; at various points, he’s worked as a science journalist, executive vice president of Consumer Reports, chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and chair of the White House Task Force on Smart Disclosure.

Gurin used his time on the task force to study how consumers can use government Open Data about products and services to make more informed choices in the marketplace. In Open Data Now, he offers the same lesson to the business world. How can businesses learn and even profit from Open Data? Let’s take a look at what “Open Data” means; in his book, Gurin describes it like this:

Open Data can best be described as accessible public data that people, companies, and organizations can use to launch new ventures, analyze patterns and trends, make data-driven decisions, and solve complex problems.

To hear Gurin tell it, this accessible public data is what will make or break the next few decades of startups and will inform the evolution of countless well-established companies. He tells the story of The Climate Corporation to illustrate this point, explaining how the startup received millions of dollars of venture capital and was ultimately sold to Monsanto, all on the strength of their business model.

The Climate Corporation takes the same open weather data used by the Weather Channel and the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) and uses it not only to insure other businesses against weather events but also to predict future weather trends and provide recommendations on when and where farmers should plant to yield the strongest crop. This kind of ingenuity, mixed with increasingly open datasets on a wide range of topics, will form the basis for many successful businesses in the coming years.

Nowadays, “Open Government” and the accompanying “Open Data” terms are common parlance but are often assumed to refer to governmental/legislative matters alone (like the NCDC’s weather data). However, Gurin cautions, this isn’t the case, nor can “Open Data” be used interchangeably with “Big Data.” Gurin defines an important distinction between the terms:

With Big Data, the data sources are generally passive, and the data is often kept private. [It] usually comes from sources that passively generate data without purpose, without direction, or without even realizing they’re creating it. […] Open Data is public and purposeful. It’s data that is consciously released in a way that anyone can access, analyze, and use as he or she sees fit. […] Open Data is also often released with a specific purpose in mind.

In an effort to identify those who could (and should!) use Open Data, Gurin names five Open Data business “archetypes”:

  • Suppliers — those who publish data for public use
  • Aggregators — those who collect, analyze, and charge for insights
  • Developers — those who design, build, and sell apps using Open Data
  • Enrichers — those who use Open Data to enhance their existing services
  • Enablers — those who help companies make use of Open Data

The book explores the opportunities Open Data provides for each archetype, and Gurin helpfully concludes each chapter with a section on “Realizing the Business Potential,” his recommendations for how readers should implement Open Data to ensure their company’s transition is smooth and successful. With chapters on sentiment analysis, green investment, and even the privacy aspects inherent in the Open Data revolution (such as the NSA scandal), Open Data Now does a good job of presenting a holistic picture of the current state of Open Data.

As you might guess from the forcefully imperative title, Open Data Now carries with it one main message: Open Data is key to successful, healthy businesses, and it has never been more important for everyone, from startups to well-established firms, to embrace it. Gurin believes that the biggest opportunities lie in the fields of health, finance, energy, and education, areas where the federal government is currently focused on Open Data release. By exploring each of these in depth and providing recommendations for business implementation, Gurin puts us well on the path to embracing Open Data…now.