We're living in the exabyte age, where the actions of billions of humans using the Web and their mobile devices are creating massive amounts of big data to collect, store, analyze, and put to work.
If big data is a strategic resource, as has been suggested, then many national and state governments have public reserves that can be tapped for the public good in this young century's version of the industrial revolution. Given that the United States economy is still coming out of the worst recession and financial shock since the Great Depression, supporting civic and tech entrepreneurs enjoys political support from both sides of the aisle.
Entrepreneurs, big and small, are mashing up data from the rapidly expanding collection of sources and building new businesses on it or improve their existing services, like Zillow or Google Maps or Consumer Reports or Bloomberg Government. In a time when job creation is critical, using public sector information to create jobs isn’t an aim to dismiss lightly, although the terms and conditions under which such activity occurs must be clear to all actors involved, to avoid the creation of new monopolies based upon artificial scarcity.
My publisher, long-time open source and open government advocate Tim O'Reilly, has asked how government can act as a platform to enable people inside and outside government to innovate on top of it. One answer is certainly releasing open data. In that context, open data and application programming interfaces, more commonly known as APIs, increasingly look like fundamental infrastructure for digital government in the 21st century.
There's good reason to think that open data could have an overall effect on the economy akin to open source and small business. Gartner, the IT research analysis firm, recently highlighted how open data creates value in the public and private sector.
You may not realize it, but services you use on a daily basis have been built upon data released by the government. Weather data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association has an annual estimated economic value of $10 billion, according to U.S. Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel and U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park. NOAA data sets are used by Weather.com, Weather Underground, and the Weather Channel—and the nation's farmers consult these forecasts to manage both their crops and the risks of loss. VanRoekel and Park estimate the annual economic value of the data from the U.S. global positioning system at some $90 billion. From companies like TomTom or Garmin to dashboard GPS systems to smartphones and associated location-based applications, GPS data sets are baked into an expanding number of services and products.
Now, as Park seeks to scale open data across the federal government, we’re on the verge of the next generation of services driven by open data, which will involve everything from energy to health care to consumer finance to transit sectors. The challenge is that the cities and federal agencies that hold vast amounts of data may not always understand the value of the information they hold or how to create or sustain businesses using it. That's where open innovation in the public sector and the dynamism of entrepreneurs will play an important role in making the people's data more useful to the people.
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