Open Data Can Make Big Business in Hampton Roads

Open Data Can Make Big Business in Hampton Roads
How many times have you, an entrepreneur or business leader, been offered free raw material to use for developing an innovative business idea? Probably not many.

But the fact is, there is a virtual gold mine of just such free raw material available to any entrepreneur, innovator or business leader who has the imagination and willingness to use it.

It is called open data, and there is a lot of it.

Open data is free, publicly available data that anyone can access and use. Government at every level produces it, as do many global non-governmental organizations such as the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Academia, the scientific research community and certain nonprofits produce it also.

Businesses across the nation and around the world have taken notice and are using open data in innovative ways to create new products and services as well as to enhance existing lines of business.

In a 2013 report, “Open Data: Unlocking Innovation and Performance with Liquid Information,” the McKinsey Global Institute estimated there is over $3 trillion unrealized value in open data that can be tapped. This includes value from creating new products and services, value from enhancing existing products and services, and value from the savings passed on to consumers through greater price transparency and the ability to make more informed decisions.

Chances are you saw or checked a weather report in the past day or so. When you did, you used one of the most common and widespread open data applications. The weather industry is a $5 billion industry built upon open data available from the U.S. government.

Another well-known example is Zillow, the online real estate database company. Zillow combines open data from the U.S. Census Bureau with open county tax assessor data to produce its flagship real estate reports. These reports make Zillow one of the most popular real estate sites on the Internet, and those sites generate more than $640 million in revenues annually by selling advertisement space.

Zillow is not a one-off case. An April 2015 GovLabs report, “Open Data: A Twenty-first Century Asset for Small- and Medium-Sized Enterprises,” cited more than 350 small- to medium-sized enterprises that use open data in fields as diverse as health care, finance, legal services, transportation and consumer spending. These enterprises have open data business models that range from fees for products and services to software licensing fees to service subscription to advertising.

In short, this is not some pie-in-the-sky vision of what could be. It is a fact.

Although open data is free for anyone to access, combine, analyze, and otherwise use, creating a sustainable business model is not a free lunch. There can be unique challenges that come with open data that need to be considered in any business plan: seeing beyond standard business models to new opportunities, finding the right data among the vast amount that is publicly available, blending many sources into a unified whole, and wrapping it all in manageable policies and standards.

To help interested individuals and companies gain an understanding of how they might use open data in their business endeavors and also mitigate the associated challenges, two of the region’s longtime data practitioners – Cathy Green of Virginia Beach and Rick Jones of Norfolk – have teamed up to create the Hampton Roads Open Data Initiative.

Green and Jones have immersed themselves in the open data ecosystem, and they are both making a one-year commitment to organize and lead a monthly series of free, working group sessions designed to raise awareness of open data in the regional business community and to make open data a viable element for the region’s economic growth.

This effort kicked off April 5 at the Slover Library in downtown Norfolk with the first monthly session offering a broad overview of open data. Future sessions will focus on specific areas, such as health care, finance, legal services, nonprofits and startups, and include sector-specific issues and examples.

The Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce fully supports the open data Initiative, and we encourage all members and interested parties to attend these free monthly meetings to decide if open data can fit into your vision and business planning.

The mission of the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce is to help businesses succeed and enhance our economy. Open data is not a panacea to the region’s economic challenges, but it does provide the potential for our entrepreneurs, innovators and companies to develop a new generation of 21st century products and services that can be easily and freely exchanged in the global marketplace.

Bryan K. Stephens is president and CEO of the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce.

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