So you need some work done that you’ve never had done before or you need to buy something you’ve never bought before. What should you pay? That can be a tough question. What seems reasonable? Sometimes we set arbitrary rules. It’s OK if it’s under $50 or under $100. But that’s just a reassurance that you’re not getting ripped off too badly. Certainly the best way to avoid that outcome is to know how much that service or thing is worth, or at least know what others have paid for the same thing.
Fortunately now, in the age of the customer, that’s easier to find out. Price information for most consumer goods is easier to come by, making the buying process more efficient. But what about governments? We’ve all heard about the $600 toilet seat or the $400 hammer. Stories of government spending excess and mismanagement abound. Some are urban legends or misrepresentations. Others have legs — such as the recent reports of Boeing overcharging the US Army. While these incidents are likely not things of the past, open data initiatives have made significant progress in exposing spending data and improving transparency. Citizens can visit sites such as USAspending.gov for US federal government spending or "Where Does My Money Go?" for details on UK national government spending, and most large cities publish spending as well.
Last month, GovLabs, a research organization at New York University released a beta version of its Open Data 500 project. The study set out to profile US companies that use open data to generate new business and develop new products and services. Not all of the companies identified have been profiled but the list of 500 provides a wide range of both existing companies and start-ups that benefit from the use of open data.
While the start-ups are interesting illustrations of innovation and economic value-creation, the presence of big, existing companies illustrates how data transforms business.
Insurance companies such as AllState and Allianz no longer only insure people and property.
The city of Santander boasts 20,000 fixed and mobile sensors throughout the city – on buses, in parks, waste bins and in buildings. These sensors capture bus locations, humidity in the air and soil, pollution etc. They tell bus riders when their bus will arrive; they tell city park workers when to water the gardens. They also dim lights when there is no one on the street at night, and turn them on when cars or pedestrians pass. They create a complex internet of things and a rich source of data. Together with the platform enabling the aggregation, analysis and visualization of these data, they (will) provide a valuable tool at the disposal of city leaders, enterprises, developers and citizens. Today Smart Santander is a living lab (with an application pending to be part of the European Network of Living Labs).
Having launched in September 2010 with €6 million budget (primarily from the EU) and 15 partners, the project is now in its 3rd and final phase. With its sensor network, the city demonstrates the benefits of the Internet of Things across several initiatives:
Urban mobility: Sensors on buses and in taxis make it easier for citizens and tourists to find transportation; parking sensors help drivers find available places more quickly.
Water management: Sensors embedded in urban gardens detect soil humidity and enable more efficient watering; the broader water initiative envisions smart water meters in homes and buildings, and use of the sensors by Aqualia, the city’s water company.
How many of you suffer from at least mild “cyberchondria"? Do you run to the computer to Google your latest ailments? Are you often convinced that the headache you have is the first sign of some terminal illness you’ve been reading about?
Well, Symcat takes a new approach to Internet-assisted self-diagnosis. It provides not only the symptoms but the probability of getting the disease, using CDC data to rank results by the likelihood of the different conditions. It then allows users to further filter results by typing in information such as their gender, the duration of their symptoms and medical history. No, that headache you’ve had all week is likely not spinal stenosis or even viral pharyngitis. But if you’ve had a fall or a blow to the head you might want to consider a concussion.
As Symcat puts it, they “use data to help you feel better.” Never underestimate the palliative effects of peace of mind.
I had the chance to ask Craig Monsen, MD, co-founder and CEO of Symcat, a few questions about how they got their start with the business and their innovation with open data.
What was the genesis of Symcat? Can you describe the "ah-ha" moment of determining the need for Symcat?
The recent Executive Order Making Open and Machine Readable the New Default for Government Information and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Memorandum Open Data Policy – Managing Data as an Asset have brought much attention to efforts to promote the use of data by the US federal government. In fact, highlights of the US Federal Open Data Project are already impressive. Many agencies already provide their data in machine-readable formats through APIs, or at least downloadable data sets. However, I personally measure “highlights” in terms of the use of the data (not by the number of data sets accessible). And, many organizations already put this data to good uses in health, energy, education, safety, and finance. My recent blog, Open Data Isn’t Just For Governments Anymore, highlighted several examples of companies built on open data. Think Symcat, Healthgrades, oPower, or even Zillow which has been using public data for a while now. How many of you have “zillowed” your house, your neighbor’s house, or even a colleague’s house? Be honest. I have.
Smart meters provide consumers with granular data on how they are consuming energy — when is the meter spinning fastest, which appliances are the energy guzzlers, how much energy are those idling appliances consuming? Programs to increase consumer awareness and shift demand to off-peak times abound. I delay the start of my dishwasher to after 11pm here in France to take advantage of off-peak tariffs. Most consumers, however, are not highly motivated by just knowing their own consumption. Good news: Opower, a provider of really smart energy solutions, has cracked the code.
The Opower solution draws on a study of how messages influence consumption. Turns out, if you tell people that they will save money by turning off their air conditioning and turning on a fan during peak hours they likely won’t. Those are typically the times when it is really hot. Messages of “civic responsibility” and “saving the environment” also don’t really register. However, when consumers are told that 75% of their neighbors will turn off their air conditioning and turn on a fan, behavior changes. That message had a 6% drop in consumption. Opower now uses these types of comparisons in all of their offerings.
Banks have a reputation for being stodgy and conservative. But Credit Agricole (CA) has broken the stereotype. I had a great discussion a few weeks ago with Bernard Larrivière, Director of Innovation, and Emmanuel Methivier, the CA Store Manager, about the CA Store launched last fall. The store houses new services developed by third-party developers using the bank’s secure customer data — one small step for CA, one giant step for the banking industry and the data economy.
The CA Store was not only inspired by the Apple Store model but also by government open data initiatives. The public sector provided the model of exposing APIs to internal data and working with independent developers to encourage application creation. However, in a move that will likely be carefully watched by their public sector brethren, CA recognized the need for a better business model to incent developers to use the data, and to sustain the development and maintenance of the applications.
. . . Nor has it ever really been. Government data has long been a part of strategic business analysis. Census data provides insights into local standards of living and household budgets, health needs, education levels, and other factors that influence buying patterns for all kinds of goods and services. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics and the International Labour Organization provide data on employment and the availability of skilled labor that helps inform decisions on where to locate manufacturing or other facilities. The World Bank and UN data provides insights into global trends.
Moreover, the release of government data has itself spurred billion-dollar industries. Think weather data released in the 1970s by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – which gave birth to the weather industry and services like Accuweather, weather.com, wunderground, and newer services like ikitesurf.com’s “wind and where.” Data from the US Global Positioning System (GPS) was opened to civilian and commercial use in the 1980s and has given rise to thousands of location-based services. Think FourSquare, Yelp, and Where’s The Bus?
Really, it is not. I was heartened to see that it doesn’t even make the oxymoron list, which does however include “government worker,” “congressional ethics,” and the rather hackneyed “military intelligence.” In fact, governments are innovating all over the place, particularly with the help of new technologies and a growing constituency of civic-minded developers.
One of my colleagues here at Forrester asked me today if I was planning to write a Playbook on smart cities. While we don’t have a government playbook currently in the works, we have a number of reports that share market trends and industry best practices. So I thought I’d pull together a list.
Here are a few examples of Forrester reports that illustrate government innovation. My series on smart cities includes:
I was invited by the Moscow city government to participate in the Moscow Urban Forum, a conference designed to bring urban policy experts together to discuss opportunities for Moscow. Last week's event brought together primarily city leaders, urban planners, and architects with a few innovation experts and artists thrown in. There was a lot of talk of global competition and promoting the creative class in a city. But interestingly (for me at least), there seemed to be few from the ICT sector and little discussion of how to leverage technology across the city.
Despite the relative absence of technology as a main theme in the plenary sessions, there was a breakout on open data, which included city leaders from London, Barcelona, the Netherlands, and Moscow. The speakers all touched on some similar themes of internal use, external interfaces, a model of attracting business, and a comprehensive platform. These map to several of the themes of my presentation a few weeks ago at the Smart City World Congress in Barcelona — improved decision-making, transparency, greater citizen engagement, improved services, and economic development. Different cities highlight different aspects more than others. According to Sergio Jerez, Barcelona, for example, has focused on data as an opportunity to promote entrepreneurship. In his words, “open data is a new raw material for society and economic development.”