Open Data, Open Sesame

(Originally published on the SustainAbility blog)

Organisations as diverse as the US Government, the New York Mass Transit Authority and the World Bank have started publishing their previously-closed data for the world – and more particularly, their stakeholders – to see and use. This move to open data has many benefits, from fostering stakeholder participation in solving complex problems, to enabling third parties to dream up completely new services (such as mobile applications that tell you the fastest way to get around your city).

Companies, however, have been slower to embrace the move to open data, and this was the subject of a recent webinar for our Engaging Stakeholders network members.

Max Ogden (2011 Fellow at Code for America) and Laura Adams (Digital Advocacy Lead for Sustainable Business and Innovation at Nike) joined our members to talk about Nike’s own progress in opening data, to explore how a similarly active approach can benefit other companies, and to discuss open data’s relevance to sustainability reporting and stakeholder engagement.

I thought others might benefit from a few of the session’s insights:

  • Open data does not mean revealing every confidential piece of information in your arsenal.  It might simply mean publishing previously disclosed data in ways that afford easier analysis. For example, key data from previous financial and sustainability reports – revenues, GHG emissions, electricity usage, community funds, etc. – could be aggregated into and shared as an Excel spreadsheet.
  • Open data enables stronger stakeholder connections. It can involve them in finding solutions, and can facilitate the discovery-making process.
  • Many companies don’t realise that the information they have may be of value to third parties other than competitors. For example, a company’s information regarding a particular factory might help a non-profit seeking to research and improve worker conditions across that region of operation.
  • Not everyone will utilize your data. But whether it ends up being used or not, opening it up builds trust among stakeholders.
  • Be strategic with the data you are releasing and be clear with what you hope to achieve by doing so. There are risks associated with putting any information into the public domain, but clarity of purpose reduces them.

In a follow-up post I’ll be looking at some specific steps that you can take to determine how open data can derive value for your company.


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