Research intelligence - To market, to market, to use the fat data

Institute at vanguard of innovation strategy aims to link scholars and entrepreneurs. Simon Baker writes

January 19, 2012

Credit: Report Digital
Commercial call the Open Data Institute aims to link businesspeople with ideas on how to exploit government data with academics who can make them work

Bridging the gap between university research and commercial success in the UK is an age-old issue - and the focus of much of the government's new innovation strategy.

In a speech earlier this month, David Willetts, the universities and science minister, said the UK had tended to rely too much on a classic "sausage machine" approach, whereby universities spun off companies and investors then provided funds once the commercial potential of an idea had been proven.

This often left a gap in funding at a crucial stage of development.

"We have expected venture-capital firms to finance early-stage start-ups much further upstream than is realistic," Mr Willetts said.

As a result, the government is taking a variety of approaches to try to boost investment for applied research in order to help bring it "closer to market" - while at the same time keeping public spending to a minimum.

Many of the ideas formed the basis of the government's innovation and research strategy, released in December, which is being directed through the Technology Strategy Board with an extra £75 million of investment.

How this cash will benefit universities can be difficult to pinpoint, given the tools the board will use to support embryonic ideas and businesses formed from research.

But one flagship project being set up - with the help of an additional £10 million - is the Open Data Institute in East London. Directed by two British computing pioneers, World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Nigel Shadbolt - both based at the University of Southampton - the institute plans to use the expertise of academics around the country to fuel the commercial uses of government data.

The project follows on from the release of huge data sets by the state under the initiative - launched two years ago with the support of Sir Tim and Professor Shadbolt - which the academics see as the bedrock of future growth in high-tech business.

The belief is that budding entrepreneurs will be able to spot the linkages and value of seemingly disparate raw information such as crime figures or health records to create services for paying customers on platforms such as mobile phone applications.

"One of the reasons the web worked was because people reused each other's content in ways never imagined by those who created it," Sir Tim pointed out when the institute was announced last November.

Universities will play a vital role by showing how such massive and numerous databases (there are more than 5,000 data sets on already) can be quickly synchronised, manipulated and interpreted for commercial purposes.

"If you are a 24-year-old entrepreneur who wants to make a difference, you don't have 15 years of experience in using open data," said David Bott, director of innovation programmes at the Technology Strategy Board, which is currently putting together the business plan for the Open Data Institute.

"We want the [institute] be the conduit that enables those young entrepreneurs to talk to anybody in a UK university to be able to extract and use their knowledge."

He added: "It's not a simple thing to do, which is why you need not only all the academic expertise but also the energy and drive of entrepreneurs who will do all the grunt work to turn the ideas and concepts into big sprawling databases that people can interrogate."

Besides Southampton, Mr Bott cited Imperial College London and the universities of Oxford and Exeter as examples of places where cutting-edge knowledge in computer science could be harvested by those with the commercial vision.

"The role of the...Open Data Institute will be to point the entrepreneurs and businesspeople at the right academics so that they can move very test their ideas, prove the concept and, if necessary, go out and get funding to deliver it."

The institute will be based in Shoreditch, identified as an important area for start-ups seeking to benefit from the emergence of new web technology, but Mr Bott said that if successful there was no reason why the model could not be replicated elsewhere in the UK.

"What this is trying to do is maximise the chances of its effectiveness by putting it in the largest cluster of activity that we know about and led by the best academics," he said.

Matched funding

Creating a specific institute to advance web innovation is not a new idea: indeed, the previous Labour government planned to spend £30 million creating an Institute for Web Science at Southampton itself, but the project was scrapped by the incoming coalition.

The present government is instead focusing on open data, and wants its funding matched by the businesses and universities that it hopes will get involved.

Professor Shadbolt said that for university partners, the institute would look at "who has the development expertise, who wants to be involved, who has the capability to be involved and who has the commitment because we are looking to try to take the actual funding from government and...add to it."

Mr Bott said that once small businesses and academics started engaging, then others would strive to "join the battle" as they saw the commercial potential.

"In a sense, the Open Data Institute is a start-up in its own right because we are trying to do something that lots of people have talked about for a while but haven't actually put in place," he said.

"Some of the business ideas will be awful - that happens. But if you don't have the idea, you can't talk to the experts, find out whether it works and then start developing it."

He added that once firms had shown how to use open-source government data to generate profit, it would encourage big corporations to share their own information.

Professor Shadbolt said that changing attitudes towards open data were already apparent: "I think a lot of companies are starting to ask themselves the question: 'Do we get the best value out of our data by charging for it or making it difficult to access?' Open data doesn't mean it is all given away for nothing. The premise of this is that we're going to help businesses generate added value through advertising or people downloading an app, for instance."

One example is the huge potential left for linking travel data, Mr Bott said. Although mobile apps exist to help people make rail connections, for instance, there could be services that link different modes of transport.

The speed at which new businesses and opportunities can be created will depend very much on how clean the data sets are - and the Technology Strategy Board has been working with the government to improve their quality.

But there will also be an imperative to avoid disasters. While scandals relating to released information should be avoided because anonymisation is key to the open data initiative, Mr Bott is conscious that one false move could bring the project to a grinding halt.

"People are trying to second-guess what could go wrong with this. What we don't want to do is make some of this data available [only for the whole thing to] go horribly wrong because we didn't think about a problem," he said.

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