Tim Berners-Lee’s Open Data Institute Gets Its First Outside Investment, $750K From The Omidyar Network To Top Up UK’s $16M

The Open Data Institute, a UK-based incubator and promoter of open-data businesses that was first conceived by Tim Berners-Lee and artificial intelligence pioneer Nigel Shadbolt, is today announcing its first international investment. The Omidyar Network, the investment firm co-founded by eBay’s Pierre Omidyar and his wife Pam, is putting $750,000 towards the ODI. The money comes on top of the £10 million ($16 million) that the UK government, via the Technology Strategy Board, has already committed over the next five years for the project.

It also coincides with the official opening of the ODI — which has already unofficially been in operation for nearly two months.

Using open-source or open-data principles as building blocks for a business is not exactly a new idea; but as big data — and the ability to harness and use it — continues to grow in prominence, so will the need to ensure that data remains a resource for all and not become a proprietary commodity. Backing businesses that follow this principle is an essential part of that philosophy, the idea being that open data businesses will breed more open data businesses.

“Open data holds huge, largely untapped potential to change the way we function as a society. The ODI will enable organisations and individuals to find and exploit untapped markets and business opportunities; explore and understand social and cultural trends and; experiment with ways of explaining this emerging ecosystem,” ODI’s chief executive Gavin Starks said in a statement.

The ODI has four startups currently in its program. Mastodon C is a big-data analytics firm that also promotes “green” cloud-based IT; Placr, which develops transportation apps based on Open Street Maps and other open-source data sets. House-hunting app Locatable, which mashes up proprietary information with widely-available open data sets. Lastly, Open Corporates calls itself the “open database of the corporate world.” It says it already has information about nearly 50 million companies.

With the idea for the ODI partly coming from the UK’s Public Sector Transparency Board (which is led by Berners-Lee and Shadbolt) the initial remit of the ODI is to provide a forum for UK-based businesses that rely on open data.

It is part of a longer-term, years-long project that also included establishing the data.gov.uk site in 2010. Recent research from Deloitte notes that the UK’s open government data site currently gets more daily visits than their equivalents in France and the U.S., with pageviews on the site growing 285% between January 2010 and September 2012.

Although the project is UK-focused, having the Omidyar Network on board (along with the gold-plated backing of Berners-Lee) also gives the effort a potential profile beyond these borders. Whether that will translate into funding for open-data startups from outside the UK remains to be seen, but it will help those that do get backing from the program to export their ideas to other markets as part of their growth.

“The Open Data Institute will accelerate and help shape the evolution of an open-data culture.  It will unlock supply, generate demand, and create and disseminate knowledge to address local and global issues.  Omidyar Network is pleased to support the Open Data Institute and contribute to building the global open-data sector,” Omidyar Network’s policy director Martin Tisné said in a statement.

The Omidyar Network’s past investments have included consumer internet ventures (Linden Lab, ViKi, Wikia, Common Sense Media among them); as well as organizations focused on entrepreneurship, government transparency and financial inclusion.