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Open Data Gets Down to Business in Uruguay

Alla Morrison's picture

Open Data in UruguayDoes open data have economic value beyond the benefits of transparency and accountability? Does it have the power to fuel new businesses and create new jobs? Does it have the potential to improve people's lives by powering new services and products? If so, what should the World Bank be doing to help this along? These were questions we had in mind as we set out to bring together open data entrepreneurs from across Latin America for an Open Data Business Models workshop in Montevideo, Uruguay.

The beautiful capital of Uruguay hosted our two-day workshop on June 24-25, in conjunction with the first Regional Latin America and Caribbean Open Data Conference on June 27-28 (sponsored by Omidyar Network, The World Bank and IDRC.) I was deeply impressed by all the hospitality - from the Uruguayan government, to all the local partners who worked with us to organize the event, and the genuinely warm Montevideans. The part of the city where the workshop took place is an amazing combination of old world architecture gems, as if transported from 19th century Paris or Barcelona, sprinkled with sleek modern surprises. Similarly, the country itself, while steeped in tradition, is an information technology leader in Latin America. One of the highlights for me was an impromptu visit to the World Bank office to learn from Peter Siegenthaler, the World Bank Representative in Uruguay, about creative innovation work that the Bank does in partnership with the government of Uruguay.

The Open Data Business Models workshop - organized by the World Bank Group Open Finances team and led by Sandra Moscoso - brought together entrepreneurs with an impressive breadth of open-data based business ideas at various stages of development and mentors/investors working in the open data space. Ideas ranged from sensor-enabled collection of data on street pollutants, noise, humidity, etc. to an open data platform offering government, NGO and private sector datasets to Mexican citizens with a customized analytics service, to an initiative to abate social conflicts by opening extractive industry data. The geographic reach of participants was equally wide - covering Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, and Argentina. The workshop offered entrepreneurs coaching to improve their business models by applying the Business Model Canvas and lean startup approach of validated learning, MVP (minimum viable product) and pivoting. It also offered insights on funding options, as well as individual feedback on the pitches from investors.

While there aren't many examples yet of hugely successful open-data based businesses such as online real estate company Zillow, which doubled its revenue from 2010 to 2011 to $66.1 million, and currently boasts a valuation of $1 billion, investors expressed belief that there is growth opportunity in the open data sector, and hailed the wider recognition of and familiarity with the term 'open data' in the investor community. As Pablo Brenner, a co-founder of the leading VC firm in Uruguay, pointed out, wider familiarity and acceptance of the open data 'brand' by the investor community means potentially more attractive exit opportunities for early stage investors. At the same time, according to David Sasaki with Omidyar Network, impact investors don't always expect short-term returns and are interested in funding open-data based businesses for the social impact and long-term returns.

At the first regional Latin America and Caribbean Open Data conference that followed the Open Data Business Models workshop, participants from the government and the civil sector reported on progress in opening their data and shared challenges. Experts spoke about the potential impact as well as technology options and uses of open data in health, education, environment and to create smart cities. At the panel session Open Data and the Generation of Sustainable Business Models Alexandre Gomez (Seastechnologia), Maurice McNaughton (UWI-MONA Business School/Caribbean Open Institute), Pablo Brenner (VP Innovation, Globant) and Prasanna Lal Das (World Bank) focused on business uses of open data. Prasanna delivered examples of open-data based businesses that had been presented earlier at the workshop and spoke about the potential to put open and big data to practical uses. This session of the conference generated keen interest among many stakeholders. The World Bank Open Finances team left with the clear impression that there is an opportunity for the World Bank, IFC and other partners to create vehicles to support innovative open-data based businesses as a way to foster development of a new economy sector, create new jobs, further encourage governments around the world to open up their data to citizens, and to build innovative data-based services and products with a wide social impact. Some work is already underway - such as the Open Data Government Toolkit - and there is space and demand for the Bank to do more.