Carl Partridge never planned to become an entrepreneur. But the comedy writer saw an opportunity when Transport for London announced it was to publish live data from the capital’s buses.
London buses are fitted with GPS devices transmitting location information. This made it possible for Mr Partridge to create a real-time bus map accessible via mobile phones – a blessing for many commuters.
A year later, the app he hurriedly created – Bus Checker – has gone nationwide and generated “six-figure” revenues. He is looking for office space and considering hiring staff. He is in talks to launch the app overseas.
Mr Partridge is part of a wave of British entrepreneurs trying to seize the potential of businesses that can manage and make sense of digital data, ranging from health records to house prices and weather information.
In an attempt to harness the nascent sector, the government launched the Open Data Institute last week, billed as the world’s first official body aimed at helping start-ups use data. The initiative fits the coalition’s broader efforts to promote technology investment as an engine of economic recovery.
The ODI will receive £10m of public funding over the next five years and aims to raise an equal amount from private donors. It has already attracted $750,000 (£469,000) from Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, the auction website.
The institute was the brainchild of the renowned British computer scientists Nigel Shadbolt and Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web.
“It feels like 1994 with the web,” said Gavin Starks, the ODI’s chief executive. “We’re not quite sure what shape this new industry will take, but we know it will be transformational.”
Research by Deloitte consultancy shows that the UK is establishing itself as a leader in the field of data use, aided by moves to make government data available for research and enterprise. Government data are used more widely by technology entrepreneurs than the equivalent information released by the US or France, Deloitte has found.
“The UK was one of the first countries to open up its government data for use by developers and businesses,” said Murray Rowan, a web development consultant formerly with Yahoo!. “Other governments around the world … are playing catch-up.”
In an effort to stay ahead, Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, has appointed Stephan Shakespeare, co-founder of the market research group YouGov and a government adviser on digital strategy, to lead an independent review of how to make better use of public data.
Health data are seen as an especially promising area. “Nobody has a data set of patients as we do in the NHS,” said Mr Shakespeare. “This could be of incredible economic value as well as helpful to the health of the nation.”
David Cameron floated plans in August to make anonymised patient data “available to scientists and researchers on a scale never seen before”.
Gareth Williams, chief executive of Skyscanner, an Edinburgh-based website that “scrapes” airline data to find cheap flights, says the government could still do more to free up the information.
“There has always been a problem in the UK around postcode data and Ordnance Survey maps,” he said. ”Making those data sets available will increase the chances of a British company succeeding in the global market for maps.”
Mr Partridge says any data created using public money should be opened to developers and businesses. “In future, people will demand to have public data at their fingertips. It will be seen as being as essential a public service as providing a clean water supply.”