Tech Nation 2018: how and why we’re opening our data

Data & research

Henri Egle SorotosHenri Egle Sorotos, May 10, 2018

Just over a year ago I visited the Leeds node of the Open Data Institute (ODI) for the first time – a pioneering centre for radically open data in the UK. I saw first hand the power of open data, and you could say I had a professional epiphany. Since this moment, I have embraced the open data revolution, and we have fully integrated it into this year’s Tech Nation report.  

Our society is saturated with data, yet much of it is hidden away and inaccessible.

Adopting an open data principle means making data available, as far as possible, to all. In the words of the ODI, open data is “data that’s available to everyone to access, use and share. Yep, even your nan”.

The push to make open data more readily available is gaining ground and empowering people. It means anyone can use data for all sorts of things. Some of the most innovative examples include using open data to save lives in humanitarian disasters, improving healthcare information or creating apps such as CityMapper. In fact, any third party app displaying travel information is almost certainly benefitting from open data. Without realising it, we are all gaining from this phenomenon.

Open data is transforming the way we do research.  In the past, a research project was written up, it was published as a PDF, and the underlying data was nowhere to be seen ever again. It remained lost in a password protected spreadsheet or database for ever and ever. How sad.

Keeping data closed like this is bad. First, researchers are not able to validate the data and methods used by their peers. Second, it wastes valuable resources. Like many resources, data is perishable. If we leave it to rot, it can become outdated and corrupted. Finally, closed data stifles innovation. Open data encourages others to collaborate and innovate with others. Closed data prohibits this.

Fortunately, a few research bodies are starting to change, and publish the data underlying report findings. The practice is starting to gather pace, and this is what we are doing for the Tech Nation Report 2018.

Hacking the Tech Nation Report

We believe that by making the data behind our Tech Nation report open, we will stimulate innovation and encourage further research or modelling.

All the data used for the report will be open and publicly available so anyone (with even a small amount of interest) can use it for whatever they see fit. In many cases, this means a full granular dataset will be available with as much detail as possible. There are a few instances where we can only publish a more aggregated dataset due to legal constraints, but we have minimised this as far as possible.

The data will be available on the data.world platform – a huge playground of open data which anyone can access and use the intelligence gathered for the report, as well as thousands of other great datasets. Crucially, all datasets are being published with an identifiable primary key such as an Office for National Statistics geographical code. This means users can merge and manipulate the data with external sources.

The report is being published differently this year too. Whereas previously we used PDFs, this year we will have online visualisations. PDFs are the scourge of open data – figures can’t be copied or manipulated with ease. The online visualisations allow users to highlight areas of interest to them, select specific variables, and even copy the images they create for their personal use.

For the first time in the history of the Tech Nation report, all the data has been procured and processed in-house by Tech Nation staff. So everything from meetup data to Office for National Statistics information has been gathered by us. As a result, we spent a significant amount of time documenting the methodology. This means future researchers can replicate and build upon the work we have published this year. We like to think that’s a worthwhile peer to peer innovation. And our openness extends beyond our data – please share your research with us, if you use the Tech Nation Report data, we would love to showcase and blog about it.

I’m super excited to see what innovative creations arise from us making this data radically open. The Tech Nation Report is published on 17th May 2018. If you are interested in making your research projects open, get in touch with the ODI Leeds or ODI HQ, or follow #RadicallyOpen. If you have any questions or ideas, please get in touch with the team at Tech Nation.