Doing the data? Why open data should be your priority

Data wants to be free. Actually, data really really really wants to have a purpose and THEN be free to serve that purpose.

Earlier this year The YellowPages Group, owners of all the data that makes up our Canadian Yellow Pages as well as opened up their kimono to anyone interested in building applications on top of their very expensively collected and managed data. YPG had invested in their own application – you couldn’t miss the ads on Canadian television all summer – but, according to Stephane Marceau, they knew they had to open up the data as they just didn’t have the resources to get applications out there fast enough. Leveraging the development community to build software and services on top of their content makes sense for them – it makes them relevant in the digital world while their traditional business, in print, slowly dwindles.

The Yellow Pages aren’t the first to do this as the need for some businesses to shift their revenue models to the reality of this new, more balanced economy push the data doors open. Sometimes this is done as a reaction to what is going on while others are looking for ways to genuinely offer value to their customers.

Municipalities as the open data leaders?

Can companies start learning from the way cities have embraced open data? That’s right, cities like Washington, New York, San Francisco, Toronto, Ottawa and others have begun to embrace the open data movement and it is spreading. The motivations may be different – cities are mostly driven to open data because their budgets don’t compare in size to their ambition – but there is no doubt that they are leading this revolution.

The challenge that cities will face is finding an eager and waiting entrepreneurial community that can take their data and add enough of a layer of value on top of it to make a viable business. There can only be so many applications that show you the closest dog parks or your local public pool schedule. The cities seem to be the early big beneficiary as they have the ability to collect enough information from the applications that are being built and used. This data can then be used to build policy that focuses of fixing the biggest issues identified – think of it as a sort of city-wide services survey. Very valuable.

Should data be free?

This seems to be an eventuality – hoarding data today is like the guy in your office who thinks job security is knowing more and sharing nothing. Freeing data means that entrepreneurs and companies need to elevate their game to add value as it levels the playing field and allows innovation to reign supreme. It also means that products developed with open data need to serve a purpose. Opening up data in mobile today gives us all an opportunity to build the next-generation of location-aware mashups and I for one think this is the right conversation to be having.

What do you think? Is open data the way forward for mobile?

About the author

Rob Woodbridge

I'm Rob, the founder of and I've spent 14 years immersed in the mobile and pervasive computing world. During this great time I've helped some of the most innovative companies grow their business through mobile. If you are in need of a mobile business advisor or coach, connect with me here to get things rolling.

  • People often make decisions based on emotion. The stronger the feeling, the more likely they are to act. So this gives mobile developers have an opportunity to partner with Yellow Pages and give people a good reason to download their application. At the same time, they can do what Yellow Pages has always done, serve their local communities.

    How? By partnering with good causes that need fundraising and let them market the end product as a way of raising those funds.

    For example, a cancer charity may raise funds by having a downloadable local search application in the iTunes store that costs the end user a donation of $ 4.99, a portion of which goes to the charity. With a sliding scale of contribution based on volume, the more the charity promotes the mobile application (maybe a flyer in the next mailing or an email blast) the greater the charitable part can increase – once development costs are offset. It’s an easy way for people to contribute to a good cause if they have a smart phone, making this an especially attractive impulse purchase.

  • So true Harry. Thanks for the comment/insight.

    Some innovative universities in the US have started to adopt this type of thinking for their alumni donations – they open up the usual school-related data and charge a small price for apps that acts as their donation. Very simple, valuable and powerful. But, as you said, it requires marketing effort on behalf of the data owner.

    Have you seen any other examples of this is real life? Would love to highlight them on

  • Anonymous

    Great article. Opendata and mobile go hand in hand, particularly for MUNI GIS data. City zoning info, transit and property/parcel info are all low hanging fruit for dev’s.

    We’ve done some work in this space creating a framework for building rich mobile and web open data apps and open sourced it with Iphone & wp7 code available for anyone to use with open data sets. (uses Vancouver data as example)

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