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The Power of Stories

What will things look like when open data is “working”? Entrepreneurs, businesses, researchers, community groups and individuals will be innovating, creating new insights and acting as informed participants in government decisions. This is achieved by using open data that is systematically released by organisations as “business as usual”.

To reach this vision we need to address both the supply of and demand for open data, and we need to understand how they feed off each other. We need government agencies that want to release data, and we need data users that know about the value of data and are capable of using it well. It’s in the reuse that data grows its value, and where it starts to really work.

So how do we reach a point where agencies want to release data? People are motivated when they see a point to doing something. If they can see that their efforts to release open data will be leading to some worthwhile, positive impact, then they will be motivated to do their part and enable this. Time after time, the best way to help people see the point has been through telling compelling stories of how others have reused open data to make impact. It is important to explain the potential, theoretical benefits such as improved social outcomes, enabling economic growth, and transparency and participation in government. Yet, when you start telling those stories of innovative examples you can see the lights go on in their eyes.

Sometimes you can use examples of reuse of data similar to what the agency holds. If  there are no existing examples, you have to use some imagination, and tell them of a realistic possibility – if the data was openly available.

Photo of traffic on the Auckland motorwayHaving said that, it is also important to demonstrate that one should not limit the possibilities of how data can be used imaginatively. If you come across people saying “Who would want our data anyway?” it’s useful to have a story about data being used in unexpected ways. One such story in New Zealand is the ANZ Truckometer, where economists have been using traffic volume data from the New Zealand Transport Agency and its relationship to General Domestic Product (GDP) data from Statistics New Zealand to predict the direction of the economy in a regular newsletter. The newsletter is well read and used by businesses to plan and make investment decisions.

Through stories, on the supply side, agencies get to understand the nature of demand for data and what people want to use data for and become more motivated to release their own data. On the demand side, the same stories can work to increase demand amongst potential data users that are not aware yet they could be users. Stories contain ideas, and ideas can trigger more ideas.

Why do we want to increase demand? Because the existence of demand means someone has an idea or a problem to solve that will lead to the data making an immediate impact and added value, if it is released as open data.

The more demand for data is met, the more stories are generated that demonstrate that open data really can, and does add value. The more we can demonstrate open data adds value, the less effort is required to convince people it’s a good idea to release whatever data they safely can, to be open by default.

For some quick-read stories on the impact of open data, see our open data case studies.