Open data: Usage, importance, and applications in times of Covid-19

You have probably heard about the concept of open data, but what lies behind it might be a bit more difficult to understand. Often confused with big data, open data is the data that is made available for everybody to have access to and use further. Moreover, all of this access is given without restricting the user by imposing copyright or other forms of control. What makes this transparency so important, and how has open data been used until now? Even though it seems a bit technical, handling this raw information requires creativity an understanding of the possibilities.  

Open data usage and its economic impact 

Businesses crave open data. This is because it offers important insights on, for example, customer behavior or product information. Some data sets that are available online not only take some responsibility off the businesses’ shoulders (because companies won’t need to create and store that much data themselves), but it also makes them grow because it is insightful. Analyzing open data in businesses can offer results like predicting certain outcomes, revealing clients’ buying patterns, and their psychological profiles. All in all, it is a crucial factor that makes innovation possible. 

The importance of open data can be seen in how much it is currently worth. In a study that took into consideration the economic impact of open data in Europe, it was found that the open data market size was around €184 billion in 2019. Furthermore, in 2025 it is predicted that it will reach between €199.51 and €334.21 billion. This report also shows the positive impacts on the society that this publicly shared data has: more people are employed, lives are saved, time is gained, and the environment is taken more care of. As can be seen, open data acts in a very diverse way and there are various fields that can be further developed with the aid of it. 

How sharing data is helping fight the spread of Covid-19 in the UK 

Data is playing an increasingly important role in helping to tackle some of the world’s greatest challenges, an important example being the Covid-19 pandemic. In March, shortly after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak to be a pandemic, London went into lockdown. In a city of over 9 million people, authorities urgently needed to understand citizens’ levels of activity in order to craft an approach to controlling the spread. 

At The Alan Turing Institute – the U.K.’s national center for data science and artificial intelligence – a study monitoring air quality in the capital was rapidly repositioned. The Alan Turing Institute launched a new project, to gather vital behavioral information from existing open datasets – supporting London authorities during the lockdown and with planning once lockdown was lifted. It did this by repurposing the infrastructure of the air quality study to measure the city’s busyness and the public response to government interventions. 

London has a number of open datasets such as traffic-monitoring videos from the city’s transport authority as well as weather and socioeconomic data. The team also used those available datasets to create derivative data – for instance, they employed raw camera data to derive datasets of the density of moving objects, both humans and vehicles, and dug in to find more detailed information about social distancing. 

Now, what will come next lies in our hands. Learning more about and understanding the power of open data is a first step towards dealing with it. As technology cannot be defined without mentioning the human input, the future lies in tech-openness mixed with the wisdom that humanities brings.  

Written by Ioana Pintilie and William van Wijk

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