Free and easy: why say no to open data?


In many ways it’s open season for open data; open data is one of those phrases we hear a lot but it’s not always appreciated as having value. The fact that it’s openly available is seen by some as proof that there’s no value in the data – unlike, for example, lots of details about loyal customers and their buying habits. But there’s a good chance that some of this publicly available data will be of value to someone, especially when combined with other data.

It’s worth clarifying what we mean by the term open data. There are two situations where it can apply.

One is where a commercial organisation makes its data available to customers – for example your energy provider making your usage behaviour available to you, the end consumer, via smart-meter data. One recent example is a water company, Aquastar, which is now giving customers in the town of Cary, NC (where, of course, SAS’ global headquarters happens to be based) real-time access to their water usage. It helps citizens monitor water usage and saves millions of dollars in the process with an automated water meter system.

The second example is where government or a commercial organisation is using data from an open source - meaning it’s freely available to other third parties – to improve decision-making and add value. Energy companies, for example, might use weather data to forecast where and when boiler breakdowns might occur so they can optimise efficiency when it comes to deploying their fleet of repairmen.

For our recent Top Data Scientist Competition we asked entrants to predict energy demand in 2020. Aside from current energy usage, the entrants needed to take into account open data like weather, demographic changes and anything else that would help them come up with an accurate forecast. Just taking this example alone, given our looming energy crisis, it’s no wonder there’s increasing recognition of the importance of tapping into open data sources. The European Union (EU) has just pledged €14.4m to support open data initiatives across Europe, for example.

What about the variety of data out there, and how do companies know where to start in tracking down relevant open data sources? Well, firstly, never underestimate someone’s knowledge about their own particular business. If you take a mobile media company, for example, they will straight away know that underground trains not working presents them with an opportunity, as commuters stuck at train stations can be made offers for food or coffee. More often than not, business intuition will lead the company to the data that’s important for them to track.


Open data is only going to get bigger. The onset of the Internet of Things, where Internet-connected devices generates masses of their own data, is only going to increase the amount of openly-available data.

A further example of how things will change is wearable technology. This will generate data, and not just to tell those analysing the data who you are, but also, crucially, what you're doing. Information like age and earnings information are important data we can use in lots of ways, but often what you're doing right now is far more important.

There will need to be further developments to make the best use of this growing volume of data. The technological capability to sift through it all extremely quickly to find the needles in the haystack is crucial. The other major change is likely to be on a practical level: organizations will probably need to go through a number of hoops before they can make commercial gain from open data.

Whatever happens, open data is here to stay – and it’s set to get much bigger!

Find out more about some of these areas in the white paper Best Practices in Real-Time and Multichannel Campaign Management, where marketing experts looked at some key issues and best practices for campaign management in the multichannel, real-time world.


About Author

Dr. Laurie Miles

Director, Global Cloud Analytics

Laurie Miles is a Global Director of Cloud Analytics, providing analytical advice and thought leadership globally across all industry verticals. He brings over 25 years of real-world analytics experience to the role. After joining SAS in 1996, Laurie was a consultant delivering analysis focussed projects to organisations from a variety of industry sectors including financial services, telecommunications, retail and utilities. He became SAS UK’s Head of Retail Banking Technology in 2000. Laurie was later appointed Head of Analytics for SAS UK & Ireland in 2008, working with some of the UK’s largest organisations providing strategic advice and forming industry best practice. In this role Laurie also pioneered the development of the SAS Analytics-as-a-Service solution, “SAS Results”. In January 2015 was appointed to lead this globally as part of the SAS Cloud Analytics proposition. Laurie holds a BSc in Econometrics, an MSc in Game Theory and a PhD in Number Theory.

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