Why I believe in the potential of open data

10 Dec 2020
By Guillaume Thfoin, Head of Data & Analytics;
A man touching a screen

Today’s world has considerably more data and more means to interrogate that data than ever before. While the data advancements made in recent years are well reported, the coronavirus pandemic has revealed that we are not yet realising the full potential of the data that exists. 

As case numbers rose and lockdowns kicked in, Governments across the world required data from multiple sources to gauge how the crisis would impact  businesses, schools and public services. Researchers were desperate for data on the spread, virulence and origin of the virus. Retailers fought with a lack of real-time data to adjust stock levels to match customers’ changing needs. And manufacturers needed more data from distributors to understand changing demand so they could move away from the production of non-essential items to products that were suddenly in greater demand.


These experiences have reinforced the case for data sharing and open data platforms. Rather than squirrelling data away as intellectual property, we need a more open mindset to data sharing in a renewed spirit of “co-opetition” rather than competition.


Here are four key benefits that open data can bring.


1. Greater visibility for government and public services

Open data benefits citizens and the public sector. It increases the quality, efficiency and transparency of public services, and most national governments have established open data portals. Open data is also seen as a source of synergies and cost savings − and, ultimately, a basis for innovation and economic growth, according to the European Data Portal (EDP).      

Dubai has taken a page out of the European Union’s book and is working towards the creation of Data Trusts, as part of Smart Dubai, a government office charged with transforming the Emirate into a smart city.

One of the first potential applications for the Trusts’ open data platform is the Healthy Communities in Dubai initiative. This initiative will link district level aggregated healthcare data with geo-demographic and retail statistics to establish a Healthy Consumption Index covering health and consumption profiles of different subcommunities in the city. These could then be used for targeted interventions to encourage healthier food and lifestyle choices.

A good example is the incidence of type 2 diabetes and the lifestyle choices that make people more prone to developing the disease. Dubai’s cosmopolitan make-up means that diets and lifestyles vary significantly between communities. Interventions to change behaviour require an in-depth understanding of these communities’ preferences and their aggregated health. This includes stores adapting their product ranges locally to enable healthier food choices.



2. Collaborative research

Open data platforms are already established in academic research: as an article in the scientific journal Nature recently pointed out, sharing data enables greater collaboration, increases confidence in findings and fosters goodwill between researchers. You could add that it avoids duplication and creates a bigger data pool to draw on, which can in turn be helpful in removing biases in data.

The spread of COVID-19 has given further impetus to opening up data for research purposes, starting with making the virus’ genome sequence available publicly, aiding all ensuing treatment and vaccine development initiatives.

However, we are only scratching the surface at present.

In Zambia, open data contributed to an 85% reduction in reported cases and 92% fewer malaria deaths over a three-year period.  On this basis, the European Data Portal (EDP) extrapolates that open data tools could save USD 4.4–USD 6.1 billion in potential annual healthcare costs globally due to better allocation of resources in the fight against malaria.

Beyond medical research, academia can benefit from having access to rich anonymised data for the purpose of classroom learning, experimentation and testing. At Majid Al Futtaim, we have been working with University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Customer Analytics to provide researchers with more than 50 terabytes of anonymized data. In total, we have engaged with 11 research groups from a number of international universities. Students work on our data and each month we engage with them to discuss their findings, challenges and other emerging topics.



3. Business responsiveness

When lockdowns hit, items we normally wouldn’t think twice about suddenly became distress purchases. Shortages were a sign of retailers’ slow response to rapid changes in consumer behaviour and a lack of coordination and understanding between them and their supply chain partners.

Open data could provide significant improvements here, and some retailers are already going down that route.

For example, our Carrefour supermarkets in the MENA region are compiling data on product performance to improve the customer experience and grow sales. The data is being shared with suppliers so that they, in turn, can optimise their product strategies and brand marketing.

But many other sectors can benefit, as well: pharma companies are starting to open up data to share their progress on pressing global issues such as antibiotic resistance. In agriculture, open data is used to further sustainability, biodiversity, crop productivity and soil conservation.


4. Improved experiences for customers and communities

As customers, we are at the receiving end of many of the initiatives mentioned in this article.

The availability of adequate stocks of the products we like – especially at times of peak demand – is only one aspect of how open data platforms can help improve our lives.

The EDP has calculated that between 500-730 million hours were saved due to reducing our time stuck in traffic as a result of real-time traffic navigation – which equally benefits from the use of (anonymised) open data.

Open data could also help make energy savings, with the EDP predicting that open data-based tools could save 5.8 million tonnes of oil equivalent by allowing customers to bring down their energy consumption – reducing both energy expenditure and environmental impact. 


Data protection is critical

Finally, it is worth mentioning the importance of data protection.

Open data insights and privacy are not mutually exclusive. After all, you don’t need to know a person’s private details to determine whether you need to stock more flour in your supermarkets, or if a particular geographic area has a higher incidence of diseases that, in turn, could make it more susceptible to a viral infection.

Open data provides a wealth of new possibilities and all we need is an open mindset. We need to stop hoarding data and look for opportunities to collaborate with partners inside and outside of our industries, donate to data trusts and have conversations to educate people about the benefits of anonymised data sharing. It is time to grasp this opportunity to help our societies work better – for everyone.


This article was first published in Arabian Business / Gulf Business