A few weeks ago, Barack Obama delivered a campaign speech in Roanoke, Va. in which he handed his political opponents sound bite gold. “If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” Conservatives seized on this sentence as proof that the president doesn’t respect the efforts of entrepreneurs. The “We Did Build It” meme is now a rallying cry of the challenger’s campaign. Of course, the full quote could be taken a different way:
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.
The point the president was trying make, as I read it anyway, is that we don’t have to do everything ourselves. Society jointly creates some things for the common good. We can and should leverage public infrastructure, like “roads and bridges”, to enable our businesses. However, while we all take advantage of some public infrastructure, other public resources are overlooked and underutilized. Case in point: Open Data initiatives.
A large and growing cloud of high quality, well structured data and information exists on the Web as a "public good" emerging from open government initiatives, publicly funded research and even commercial contributions. The available datasets cover topics ranging from arts and entertainment to finance and markets to pharmaceuticals and genomics. In the United States, a wealth of new data is being published under the Smart Disclosure initiative. According to the US Office of Budget and Management: “Smart disclosure refers to the timely release of complex information and data in standardized, machine readable formats in ways that enable consumers to make informed decisions.” In other words, Open Data. Entrepreneurs and other job creators are rushing to create new services and businesses powered by this public resource. A couple of popular examples are Castlight and LowerMyBills. These innovative services are useful to the consumer and lucrative to the entrepreneur.
Open data is information as infrastructure. It is like a public power grid of data. In the days before public power, companies would maintain their own power generators. As national power grids came online, this was no longer cost-effective or necessary. Many basic data needs can now be met in the same way. As an added bonus, the resource isn’t just from the local government. Open data provides a global power grid of information that is accessible to anyone from anywhere. In September 2011, 46 countries signed commitments to open government operating principles, including publishing data for public use. The tired trope of the “Information Superhighway” is starting to take on new life and new meaning. Now that the digital roadways have been built, we are shifting our attention to making those streets and interstates more useful and the original investment more valuable. Leveraging this emerging global information commons is a vast opportunity for the enterprise positioned and willing to respond.
Of course we could all go it alone, always generating our own proprietary information, reinventing the wheel every time we need some new data, but why would we?
(I’ve written at length about applying Open Data to commercial endeavors in the recently published paper Radical Openness: Profiting from Data You Didn’t Create, People You Don’t Employ and Ideas You Didn’t Have.)