Seeing a need to help 60 million Americans manage their $4 trillion dollars in retirement accounts, Mike and Ryan Alfred launched BrightScope in 2008. They headed to Washington, DC, to obtain electronic data on 401K plans from the Department of Labor. They assumed that since every employer is required to provide the government with this information, it would be readily available to any citizen.
But the brothers were wrong. Labor Department officials first said that they didn’t have these data; and when challenged, they offered to provide millions of pages of printed reports—at a cost of five cents a page. The entire data set would have cost a fortune, filled 1400 boxes, and been impossible to use. Undeterred, Mike and Ryan started a lobbying campaign. With the help of several Senators, they caused the government to relent and give them electronic copies of the reports they needed.
This was before Federal CIO, Vivek Kundra, and CTO, Aneesh Chopra, joined the White House, and before President Obama vowed to provide the American people with the data they owned and the ability to use it—so that entrepreneurs like the Alfreds wouldn’t have to go begging. Eighteen months ago, data.gov was born, with the release of 47 government data sets of information. Today, there are more than 250,000 data sets and hundreds of applications that use them. New data sets are being made available every week, and localities like San Francisco, New York City, the State of California, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts have launched web sites. Countries such as Canada, Australia, and the U.K are also releasing their data. Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world worldwide web, is behind the U.K. effort. And legendary publisher Tim O’Reilly is championing a new movement, called Gov 2.0, to maintain the momentum of change.
With the data they obtained, Mike and Ryan were able to create a web site that allows consumers to learn how their retirement plans compare with others. Some retirement plans charge more than 4% a year in fees. How is anyone going to get to retirement paying 4% a year in fees? The BrightScope tools allow consumers—and employers—to easily learn when they are getting ripped off and quickly determine that a change needs to be made. The company is growing rapidly: last year it booked $100K in revenue; this year it expects to net $3 million and achieve profitability; next year it expects to hit the $10 million mark.
The opportunities aren’t just in mining financial data. Sonpreet Bhatia launched My City Way—a mobile applications platform, available in 30 cities around the world, that provides information on things like public restrooms, transit, traffic, tourist attractions, and restaurants. This is based on data provided by the local governments. So when you’re traveling to San Francisco and need to know what BART train to catch or the latest restaurant-inspection results, you can look up San Francisco Way App on your iPhone. If you hate the NYC traffic situation, check out live traffic cameras or find a good parking spot using NYC Way App. Other city-based applications provide everything from volunteer opportunities to lookup of information on traffic-ticket and bill payment. My City Way has had more than a million downloads in its first year and expects to hit the 15 million download mark next year.
The list of available data sets is endless:
- The federal government is opening up health data, the information it has on health care at the national, state, and county levels, by age, gender, race/ethnicity, and income; data on the quality, cost, and accessibility of public health (such as obesity rates and smoking rates); community-health indicators and rankings; and more. Entrepreneurs are already building applications that allow citizens to understand health performance in their area and others; “dashboards” that monitor public health; and social-networking applications that allow people to share best practices in health care, compare performance, and challenge each other.
- The Education department is, similarly, making available data on the performance of students in different schools by grade and other factors. Entrepreneurs can build applications that challenge these schools to perform more highly and provide parents with information about different possible institutions within which to educate their children.
- San Francisco City is providing information on everything from its purchase of pens and pencils, to the demographics of its health plans, to cruise schedules for ships that dock at its ports.
What is happening with the opening up of government data is nothing less than a silent revolution. There are literally thousands of new opportunities to improve government and to improve society—and to make a fortune while doing it. Unlike the Web 2.0 space, which is overcrowded, Gov 2.0 is uncharted territory: a new frontier to explore, grow things on, and settle on. It’s fresh soil for unlikely seedling ideas that, if they take root, could lead to very successful ventures. So I encourage entrepreneurs to stake their claims as soon as they can.
Editor’s note: Guest writer Vivek Wadhwa is an entrepreneur turned academic. He is a Visiting Scholar at UC-Berkeley, Senior Research Associate at Harvard Law School and Director of Research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University. You can follow him on Twitter at @vwadhwa and find his research at www.wadhwa.com.