Can open data save the world?

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Founder and Chief Executive Officer

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Ahead of her panel discussion on Incentivising Innovation Through Open Data at the World Water-Tech Innovation Summit on February 24, FIDO CEO Victoria Edwards asks: Can open data and collaboration save the world?


There is a point on the career path of every great invention when ideas hit the implacable obstinacy of market realism. Without a firm grasp of what people actually need, many of them fail.

But in an era of imminent existential threat, humanity can’t afford to let this happen to the very technology that offers our last best hope to survive and prosper.

AI innovation needs open data

The twin technologies of machine-learning and artificial intelligence fundamentally rely on data and collaboration to achieve their full potential.

There are great examples where companies and entrepreneurs have set aside traditional proprietary boundaries to deliver game-changing results.

But too often innovators still find themselves engaged in the same endless discussions about who gets to see what.

The result is a zero sum of all parts. Technology doesn’t reach its potential. Companies don’t get the end-to-end solutions they crave. And the world continues to burn. Dozens of proprietary insular solutions evolve and the market segments as individual companies become wedded to the technology they’ve already invested so much in.

True collaboration and data sharing works

It doesn’t need to be that way.

If there’s one thing that FIDO’s experience proves, it is that true collaboration and data sharing works. It’s no exaggeration to say that the forward-thinking approach of United Utilities to sharing its data, expertise, time and ambition, brought about the revolution in leak detection that is our leak-sizing algorithm.

Open data for me is a tangible expression by a company or by an industry that collaboration is the only way to solve a particular challenge or problem.

However, success needs trust, transparency and a commercial framework which benefits all those who are involved. This is not easy when you’re in a competitive commercial or regulatory environment .

Can open data save the world?

Going back to FIDO’s experience, everyone is talking about leakage league tables and out-performing their competitive rivals. But the bigger picture – of which leakage is a key part – is the over-whelming social and economic need for global water resilience. In sub Saharan Africa if you don’t have water you die.

That’s why the World Bank has called for a fundamental shift in how the world understands, values and manages water. This includes making evidence-based decisions about water using strengthened water data.

Isn’t it sad that we’re still being driven by a big stick when have the technology to solve the real global issues and it just isn’t happening? By not embracing open data and true collaboration, we’re not delivering the solutions that are only just out of reach.

We need a change of perspective

No single entity or sector is any more at fault than another but it is time for a change in perspective. The free and easy sharing of raw data is not a business risk. We’re not talking about intellectual property or the key to the executive washroom.

The real risk lies with regulatory systems which, however inadvertently, disincentivise sharing behaviour; companies who stick rigidly to closed-loop proprietary systems and technologies; or innovators themselves who say that in order to get value from their data you can only use their products.

Opening up your data shouldn’t be a one-way street. The results should be multi-directional. In fact, being inside the tent of innovation and helping guide the development from within makes it more likely you’ll be the first beneficiary of positive change.

Share data and add value

One more reference to FIDO. At the outset, we made a conscious commercial decision to be sensor and platform agnostic. That was nothing to do with being philanthropic. We’re still profitable. It was about letting other people take our ideas. Letting them move them forward in ways beyond our direction of travel and build something else that’s required.

We did get pushback initially. But now that we’re adding value to data and everyone’s benefitting – us, clients and several enlightened suppliers – everyone sees the potential.

One thing is for sure. If the current framework worked, someone would already have come up with an end to end solution to leakage and everyone would have bought it. They haven’t and it’s time for us all to wake up and get into the tent.