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From the Archive, Profiles

Why Choose the Open Data Model for Social Projects?

wheelmap_avatarIn 2010, Raul Krauthausen decided to take up a big issue for wheelchair users in Germany: accessibility. Or, inaccessibility.  The resulting idea and work, Wheelmap.org, is now a fast-growing data source of over 385,000 crowdsourced data entries on public space accessibility that reaches 40,000 users per month in 23 languages. Wheelmap has won national and international recognition from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the United Nations, and the European Commission, among others.

Here, Frieda Werner, Wheelmap’s product and community manager, writes about the conscious choice to make open data the center of their business model.

The open data idea has attracted a lot of attention recently. However, to many the concrete benefits to their business model or non-profit organization remain unclear. More often, the thought that tediously collected data can be used and even modified by others seems more daunting than appealing. In this blog post I will discuss the benefits of open data we experienced when building and running our project “Wheelmap.org—the online map to find and mark wheelchair accessible places.” I am convinced that our experience can be a blueprint for other social projects and their usage of open data.

When we started Wheelmap.org we had to answer the questions “How do we want to collect data?” and “Who should own this data?” After looking at different approaches the answer to both questions seemed obvious: let the crowd collect the data and let the data be owned by the crowd.

Three years into the project, we’re convinced that the open data approach was the right decision, and that it is in fact one of the main drivers of the success of Wheelmap.org. The reason for this is that open data comes with many features that pay in on three of the main key performance indicators of Wheelmap.org and probably many other social projects:

1. Growth

When using open data you don’t have to start from scratch. You can use the data sets that are already available, tap into the communities that collected those data sets and join forces with them. No matter if you share the same goal with a project or if a project just happens to collect the data you need as a by-product – everyone can benefit from it. This allows for a wide range of possible co-operations as well as piggybacking opportunities. Moreover, it also creates a wider spread of your data and thus, in the best case, of your concern / topic. And by tapping into existing communities, cooperating with fellow projects or piggybacking, you also have a much easier time localizing your project.

2. Empowerment

Open data allows you to get your community involved and to foster real participation. By giving your community ownership you make them feel responsible, respected and empowered. They are no longer just receiving help, but can actively contribute. They are creating change for their own good and feel like they are part of a bigger social group / movement.

3. Sustainability

Keeping development and maintenance costs as low as possible is a main goal for most social projects. Open data often comes with access to open software and a big community supporting the existing infrastructure. This doesn’t only help when building the project, but also in the long run. Open data is being taken care of by many. Even if you have to shut down others will continue to use, maintain and add to “your” data.

Of course, these indicators are by no means the only determinants for the success of a social project. This is also not a comprehensive list of all the features of open data. But this short overview hopes to give a first idea of how open data can be beneficial for your social project too.