Joel Gurin is the author of the book Open Data Now: The secret to hot startups, smart investing, savvy marketing and fast innovation (see my review). He has a background in the private sector, media, academia and government. Joel is a science journalist, senior advisor at New York University’s GovLab, and former chair of the US White House Task Force on Smart Disclosure for Open Data.
He joins us in this exclusive interview on revenue models for open data companies, public perceptions, implications of mobile devices, evolution of data sets, and new resources for civic tech players such as OpenData500.com.
A: I am now leading the Open Data 500 study at the Governance Lab at NYU. We are collecting information about 500 US-based companies that use government open data as a key business resource. We have just published the work so far on our website, OpenData500.com, and our study has been recognized as a unique contribution to the field.
While there are several non-profit organizations doing important work on Open Data, and all kinds of university-based technology programs, I do not know of any university program that is doing exactly the kind of work we are — though a lot of their work is relevant in different ways.
YS: How was your book received? What were some of the unusual responses and reactions you got?
A: The book has been very well received. It is being recognized as the first comprehensive, authoritative book on Open Data and its uses. The most surprising reaction in my mind was when someone referred to me as an “Open Data scholar.” I am flattered, but I don’t think of myself as a scholar in the field – it is evolving too fast. I have tried to be more of a participant observer and researcher, both doing work on Open Data and studying and chronicling the field as it develops.
YS: What revenue model seems to work best for Open Data companies?
A: It is too early to tell, but there are a number of viable revenue models, which is a good thing. These include subscription, lead generation, advertising, consulting (based on Open Data analysis), and data management — making Open Data more usable for business applications by other companies.
YS: What are your findings with regard to Open Data initiatives in Asia?
A: I am not that familiar with Open Data in Asia, although we have had some interaction both with Open Data advocates in Taiwan and advisors to the government of Japan. It does seem that a lot of the interesting work in Asia is happening at the city level.
YS: In an era of increasing terrorism, will governments pull back from Open Data initiatives?
A: I do not think so. The movement to Open Data already assumes that governments will hold back data that they believe is important to national security. No one expects that that will become Open Data in the first place.
YS: In an era of concern about the ‘Snowden effect,’ how do you see citizens reacting adversely to sharing of their information?
A: The NSA situation has unfortunately made much of the public suspicious of all kinds of data. I expect it will have a chilling effect on Open Data initiatives that rely on sharing personal data. At the same time, it has raised important questions about privacy and personal data, and I think the Open Data movement as a whole will benefit in the end.
YS: What kinds of effect does mobility have on Open Data with new data sets being created by operators?
A: Mobile devices can be excellent ways to gather data in the field and share it as Open Data. We are seeing this especially in developing countries where government data sets can be pretty unreliable but cellphones are ubiquitous and can be used as data-collectors.
YS: What are the typical challenges Open Data startups face as they scale up their company?
A: One of the biggest challenges is learning how to use open government data, since much of it is in hard-to-use formats, inaccurate, or incomplete. Now, though, government agencies are making more of an effort to be responsive to companies that need their help. The best advice is to find someone in the agency whose data you are using, whether federal, state, or local, who can help cut through some of the problems and make the data easier to apply.
YS: What trends do you see in venture capital investment in Open Data startups?
A: I’m not sure that VCs have thought much about Open Data as a category. But there is a new VC fund called the Govtech Fund that is all about funding new companies that want to put open government data to use. It will be interesting to see what they are able to do to advance the field.
YS: How should innovators strike that delicate balance between ‘Stick to your vision’ and ‘Adapt to a changed world’?
A: Maybe the mantra should be, “Be ready to adapt your vision!” I think you have to see innovation in this area as somewhat akin to agile development. It is an iterative process. As you start innovating with one group of datasets, others may become open, or other companies may make the data you want to use more available. It is a changing landscape, which is ultimately a good thing.
YS: In the time since your book was released, what new Open Data startups and initiatives have you come across?
A: I am seeing a number of new companies – we have pulled them together in the Open Data 500, as you can see at OpenData500.com. One of the interesting trends is the number of companies that are providing technology and platforms to make Open Data more useful to other businesses. They are seeing the business value in Open Data and helping provide it to other companies that see the same value as well.
YS: What is your next book going to be about?
A: It is going to be a while before I write another one, but if I do, I would like to focus on the uses of Open Data by government and civil society. ‘Open Data Now’ focused on the commercial uses of Open Data, although it also got into other aspects of the field. But there is a whole other story to tell about the civic tech side, which in many ways really began the Open Data movement.
YS: What is your parting message to the startups and aspiring entrepreneurs in our audience?
A: Open Data is a huge resource that is really just now being discovered. If you approach it with an innovative mindset, there is a lot you can do.