On April 21st, Microsoft announced that it would be partaking in the growing ‘open data’ movement by freeing some of its digital information in order to speed up the fight against Covid-19. In collaboration with the Open Data Institute, Microsoft is aiming to launch 20 data-sharing groups by 2022, and hopefully liberate information on key world matters such as the Coronavirus and climate change. What is open data? The European Commission defines open data as “so-called public sector information i.e. material produced, collected, paid for and/or held by public sector bodies at national, regional and local level, such as ministries, agencies, municipalities, but also by organisations that are mainly funded by or under the control of a public authority.” Embracing open data? Many governments have already been embracing open data; however, corporations have been more hesitant as they fear losing intellectual property and landing themselves in privacy disputes by risking consumer privacy. However, as Microsoft develops software are licencing to enable widespread data sharing, their strategic decision may have a ripple-effect on other big-tech companies like Google or Facebook. As the president of Microsoft, Brad Smith notes, less than 100 firms have collected over half of all data generated online. The impact of releasing such data will be hugely substantial. Benefits of open data Data sharing has already proven that it can be beneficial in helping us tackle some of our biggest social challenges. For example, when the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) made some of its data available, the Society of Cardiothoracic Surgery (SCTS) was prompted to share their own data on heart surgery. This led to the development of an app called idata, which enabled the analysis of surgery data, leading to a reduction in heart surgery deaths by 1,000 per year.
This type of data collaboration is exactly what Microsoft and the Open Data Institute are aiming to drive on a larger scale, empowering organisations to make data available for the benefit of researchers, clinicians and developers. Data sharing also has vital economic benefits. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), has found that states can enjoy an increase of 1-2.5% in GDP as a result of widening data sharing practices. The consulting firm McKinsey also published findings showing that open data being made available by different levels of government can generate US$3 trillion annually. This is because data can be used and re-used infinitely; it is a reusable commodity. A key opportunity in the use of open data is its benefit to start-ups and SMEs; start-ups and SMEs typically do not have the same type of resources to access large amounts of data in the way that multinational corporations do. This means they encounter difficulties when trying to access certain data, a competitive disadvantage which has profound consequences in certain instances for example, for a start-up looking to access a new market. Challenges to open data However, data sharing can too, pose some challenges. The Open Research Data Task Force (ORDTF) in the UK found three key challenges to open data. The first challenge is where to find data. Data is not always easy to find even when it can be made widely available. This can pose a challenge to users seeking to benefit from open data. The second challenge found concerns the use of data – how should data be used. Technical factors such as format variability and compatibility issues can make data sets difficult to compare, especially when information has been gathered over an extended period of time, over several years. Given that analysis of trends usually requires data across a period of 5 years, this poses a critical concern for advocates of open data. In spite of these challenges, the ORDTF has suggested various recommendations to overcome such obstacles, such as good practices in data management, and a reduction of the analytic skills gap. We would love to hear your opinions on Microsoft’s embrace of open data. Do you reckon other big-tech firms will follow suit; and will data sharing play a role in rebuilding post-coronavirus economies in the global North? Comment your thoughts below.