What is open data and how can it be used to make digital services – and the lives of people using them – better? Sit tight – we’ll get you up to speed on the topic in plain english.

Okay so. Explain this ”open data” thing for me, please.

If information is power, then these days there is certainly no shortage of it – laying around the digital universe and available for free, usually in the form of terribly assembled text files and spreadsheets that no one in their right mind wants to be involved with. Judged by the content itself however, the amount and depth of this data is often staggering.

Combined with skilful service design, open data can be a true treasure chest.

Open data can refer to any information that is publicly available and can be freely re-distributed. In practice, this can mean anything from public statistics and government data to the location of public restrooms. And in designing digital services, stuff like this often comes surprisingly handy.

Can you give me examples of projects that utilise open data?

Certainly. Last year, we released a service called UPM Metsäni. Aimed at new and passive forest owners, the application needed to provide information about the individual forest properties quickly and in an easily digestible form. The target audience was not necessarily familiar with the topic – many of them had simply inherited the property and did not necessarily have the slightest clue what being a forest owner means in practice.

While researching the case, we soon found out that there was indeed a great deal of public information available about the forests in Finland. But our average John Doe would probably not have bothered to go through the trouble of finding it, yet alone trying to make sense of it by himself.

Thus, we made it so that our service dug up all the important information about the individual user’s property and presented it in an easy-to-understand and aesthetically pleasing way. Mission accomplished.

UPM Metsäni uses open data to quickly dig up relevant information about the user’s forest property.

That’s neat. But what does this tell us about open data in general?

The point here is that combined with skilful service design, open data can be a true treasure chest. Even the most mundane open data can be surprisingly useful in the right context. In Helsinki, open data has been successfully utilised in services ranging from clever uses of public transport data to a speech synthesis service that helps the visually impaired navigate the city.

These are perfect examples of open data being used for services that aim for common good. But public information can just as well be used for other purposes as well. How about using open traffic data to recommend the quickest route to your service at any given time? How about recommending products based on weather? Or selling real estate based on low crime rates and excellent air quality in the area?

The possibilities for creating useful new digital services are practically endless.

With open data available from almost all aspects of life, the possibilities for creating useful new digital services are practically endless. The hard part is navigating through the massive chunks of information, choosing the most relevant parts of it for the job and turning it all into great user experiences.

The good news, though, is that all this great stuff is sitting right under our nose, just waiting to be picked and put to use.

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