Accessing Open Data via APIs: Never Mind the App, Is There a Market for That?

Mark Boyd, September 4th, 2013

ExversionExversion is hoping the need to access wide-ranging open datasets has matured enough to create a viable business as an open data marketplace. Their new Exversion API provides developers with a RESTful interface to search and access the open datasets stored on the Exversion data platform. At present, the API returns queries in JSON or XML format, with full XML support to be provided in the near future.

Created by ex-Head of Marketing at CartoDB, Jacek Grebski, and Hacker Hours mentor Marianne Bellotti, Exversion has the ambitious goal of making the world’s data “easily accessible, manageable and consumable”. One of the neat aspects of their approach is that by uploading your own datasets, you have instantly created an “on-the-fly data API” as well as having been added to the data platform’s searchable open data index. Data owners can set permission limits to share the datasets publicly, or to be accessible only to identified colleagues through their own private data repository on Exversion. There are a range of free and paid plans priced according to the amount of data and number of collaborators who will be accessing your data-via-API on the platform.

But is the market ready to monetize? In Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think, authors Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier argue that at present, those with “the most value in the big data value chain” are those businesses and entrepreneurs with an innovative mindset attuned to the potential of big and open data. While still in its nascence, “the ideas and the skills seem to hold the greatest worth”, they say. However, they expect:

“…eventually most value will be in the data itself. This is because we’ll be able to do more with the information, and also because the data holders will better appreciate the potential value of the asset they possess. As a result, they’ll probably hold it more tightly than ever, and charge outsiders a high price for access.”

This may be the endgame business model for Exversion, who are building a semi-open data platform infrastructure that may later enable data owners who have stored their data in private repositories on the platform, to charge their collaborators for accessing it.

Francis Irving is an example of the sort of entrepreneur with an innovative mindset that the Big Data authors argue is of most value in the chain at present. To him, business models like Exversion’s will have a tough road ahead. Irving is the founder of ScraperWiki which provides professional services for business and governments to trawl and scrape data from websites and other media sources in order to create analyzable datasets. An earlier iteration of the company provided a scraping service and open data platform along a similar line as what Exversion are proposing.

Speaking with ProgrammableWeb, Irving shared:

“My hunch is…

  • People *in general* don’t buy data so much, but user interfaces and data *for a particular purpose*. So the market is small in the first place.
  • For finding data (“discovery”), search engines are currently good enough – the data market places don’t really add any value.
  • If you are after data, you need to understand it in detail, and usually want to get it directly from upstream for provenance and reliability reasons.”

His hunch may be right. Earlier this year, InfoChimps began closing down many of the on-the-fly data APIs that it hosted in a similar model to what Exversion are proposing. While InfoChimps started as an open data marketplace, they have since pivoted to being a cloud-based big data “infrastructure stack”.

Similarly, Junar – which received $1.2 million in venture funding in May this year – has yet to find its legs as an open data platform. While they have made inroads by taking on several California cities as open data clients, it is still early days for this Chilean-San Francisco startup, which is in direct competition with the Exversion model. One of their potential strengths is the ease with which city officials can share their data via a webportal and each dataset published is given a corresponding GUID which can be invoked via API calls.

Meanwhile, anyone seeking to compete as an open data marketplace platform also has to compete with CKAN, an open source platform built with Python and Javascript, and run by the reputable not-for-profit Open Knowledge Foundation. CKAN is used by government data publishers around the world and offers the powerful CKAN API which can be used to develop third-party applications and services that draw on the datasets in the CKAN library, and on metadata about how often the datasets are accessed, published or updated.

According to Francis Irving, for open data platforms and marketplaces to become more of a viable business model, there is some way to go. One of the key barriers for scaling up open data marketplace services is the lack of awareness of how data can be used as a business tool:

“(There isn’t yet) General market awareness that scraping and data science can help them. There are lots of people in businesses who need such services and don’t necessarily know they do.

Imagine if as many people had heard of ‘data scientists’ as had heard of ‘lawyers’ or ‘accountants’!”

That’s exactly what services like Exversion and Junar are imagining… and they are hoping it will happen soon.

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