Open data in higher education – the ‘next big thing’?

Businesses have been told that data is the ‘next big thing’ for a number of years now.  And in recent weeks the world has witnessed the capability of massive systematic analysis of digital data following exposure of the methods used by the US and UK intelligence agencies.

Most organisations, including universities, know that data can help to develop more effective processes or identify new markets and products. Our report looking at efficiency and effectiveness in higher education emphasises this point. For good or bad, what the security services programmes have demonstrated is the step change in the potential of data as digital technologies become ever more integrated into our lives.

Openness

The real power of data is not just in the ability of individual organisations to generate and crunch through massive data sets for business insight. The increased volume of data has also combined with another principle closely associated with the development of the internet – openness. Open data is the principal that certain types of data should be available for everybody to use and to republish in new forms. In the case of government data this is set in the long history of transparency and accountability and has underpinned the establishment of data.gov.uk to publish public sector data sets.

Open data is also likely to bring economic benefits. Open data allows a wider range of users to interrogate it and potentially generate new uses, while linked data methods allow different data sets to be combined – further expanding these potential benefits. This next stage of the government open data agenda was set out recently by the Shakespeare review of public sector data. The report suggested that the economic and social value generated through usage and innovation made possible by open public sector data could be in excess of £5 billion. Just the time saved waiting at bus stops by apps that use open transport data was given an estimated value of somewhere between £15 million to £50 million pounds. In order to unlock this type of potential, the open data institute has already been set up with £10 million public funds to encourage practice and innovations.

What does this mean for higher education?

Although the principal of transparency may not always be as clear cut as with government data, the value of open practices can tip the balance towards this approach in higher education. There is already widespread commitment to shared data collection and dissemination of data through HESA and UCAS, and both organisations make much of this data available. The importance of using data effectively is well known to universities as they adapt to operating in an increasingly complex market, especially during the admissions cycle. And last but not least, universities know the power of data through their research activities and the benefits of exposing data to scrutiny and reuse to drive discovery, innovation and advance knowledge.

Open and linked data practice is already developing in the sector. Both The Open University and University of Southampton have looked at how open and linked data practice can be applied to their own institutions’ administrative data. The data.ac.uk initiative is emerging into a central point for open and linked data sets which encourages that community to share, utilise, update, grow and generate demand for open data. The ESPRC has supported equipment.data.ac.uk to improve visibility and utilisation of UK research equipment. JISC and initiatives such as www.linkeduniversities.org and the www.linkedup-project.eu are also developing and disseminating good practice.

Ownership

Moving toward open and linked data practice is not always straightforward. Questions of data ownership and privacy need to be addressed as part of the process of evaluating data for its suitability for publication. There is also the challenge of justifying the internal cost of publishing when the benefits may not be immediately obvious, though the early experience shows that the main beneficiary of open and linked data is the publishing organisation itself. Openness itself can also run up against commercial and competitive imperatives.  For example whether the growing volume of data generated by online learning platforms will be treated as proprietary or as open data is not yet clear.

Let us know what you think

Open and linked data are in their early stages of development and the extent of the potential application in higher education is only just being explored. Here at Universities UK we would like to join the discussion about the potential for open and linked data in higher education and to explore the lessons and opportunities that are emerging in this evolving field. So, if you are working on open and linked data in universities or elsewhere we would love to hear from you.

William Hammonds is a policy researcher at Universities UK

About William Hammonds

Policy Researcher at Universities UK
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