Replicating the Open Data Institute

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At the ODI Annual Summit on October 29, the Open Data Institute announced the first 13 nodes in its global network. This open data network is an experiment that intends to meet the demand from people and organizations for ODI-like organizations in their home countries, regions and cities.

The aspiration is that some will become country-level nodes on par with the ODI itself. To better understand how this may come to pass, it’s instructive to look at the conditions for the ODI’s own success, from its origin to today.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Open Data Institute and ODI Nodes, CEO Gavin Starks provides an honest and insightful history and description of ODI Nodes. You might also check out its first annual report.

A very brief history of the ODI

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, and Nigel Shadbolt lobbied the United Kingdom’s Technology Strategy Board for four years to provide the funding for an Open Data Institute (£10M over five years). The University of Southampton, at which both Berners-Lee and Shadbolt are professors, underwrote the lease for the ODI’s space in London’s Tech City and otherwise provided significant startup resources. The ODI recruited local experts with international recognition like Jeni Tennison to join the executive team, selected rising open data startups like OpenCorporates for its business incubator, and established itself as an open data hub through initiatives like its Friday Lunchtime Lecture series. It did all this in a context of political attention on open data, evidenced by the G8 Open Data Charter this summer, and with the United Kingdom as co-chair of the Open Government Partnership.

Lessons for the new and upcoming ODI nodes

From this brief story, we can extract several conditions for its success thus far. It’s not clear which of these are necessary conditions, and the list is definitely not comprehensive, but the ODI UK is the only evidence we have of a country-level ODI node. In no particular order:

  • Funding vehicle: The ODI would not exist in its current form without its funding from the Technology Strategy Board. A top priority of any node will be to identify its most promising funding sources and financing vehicles.
  • Reputation: From its founders and executive team to its startups and members, the ODI is composed of some of the best recognized experts in open data and the web. These people gave the ODI a great reputation from day one.
  • Tech hub: The ODI secured space in a fast growing tech hub that is home to several hundred startups, many of which are eager to use open data, to work with the ODI, to use its outputs and resources, or to join as members.
  • Expert labor force: The ODI has a large pool of local experts to hire from, including the talent in London’s Tech City. It can also leverage its relationship with the University of Southampton to recruit trainers for its open data courses.
  • Capital city: The ODI is not far from government and public sector organizations, which it will variously advise, inform, persuade, train or consult with as it pursues its mission.
  • Founding partners: The University of Southampton was prepared to commit significant resources to set up the ODI. It will also award a Postgraduate Certificate in Open Data Technology to people who complete the ODI’s planned three-month course.
  • Political attention: The ODI was able to take advantage of the political attention on open data, both locally and internationally. What local opportunities can new ODI nodes leverage?

If you are setting up or considering an ODI node, which of these conditions does your city, region or country already fulfill? Which need more work? What steps can you take over the next months and years to prepare the ground for an eventual transition to a country-level node?

Of course, each node will have a different take on what an Open Data Institute does, taking into account its local context. The history and conditions described above hopefully add to the advice and direction that the ODI itself already offers.

The new ODI nodes may find the following documents particularly useful. Most went missing in theodi.org’s recent redesign, but I’ve made PDF versions from Google’s cache. In particular, its five-year business plan includes an excellent discussion of its target markets and activities.

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