If you have a large amount of information, you might consider releasing it to others who can also benefit from it. This is an especially important consideration if you are already providing a public API, but are not offering easy access to your full dataset. If you’re not, read on to learn more about the Open Data movement and how letting your API consumers have full access to all your information can actually benefit your organization.

Man with green blackboard above him with business related drawingsThis article explores several aspects of Open Data and how your company can utilize it. You will start by learning how Open Data is commonly used, by both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. We’ll then explore two possible business models inspired by Open Data (both of which are contingent up free data access). We will also provide guidance on tools that you can use to convert the information residing in your database to formats that are more sharable. Finally, we’ll help you compare the available licenses that stipulate what consumers are allowed to do (and not do) with the data you open up to them.

Status of Open Data

The concept of Open Data is generally understood as the act of making information freely available to anyone, without imposing any kind of restriction. Information is typically controlled by using a combination of copyright, patents, and other types of license agreements. In the case of Open Data, none of these means of control are in place, letting anyone consume, distribute and use the information in any way they like. In most cases, attribution is all that is asked for by organizations that open their data.

Open Data is often used in those sectors that do not have to deal with revenues or ways of generating business out of information sharing. Major providers are scientific and government agencies throughout the world. The United Nations Statistics Division, for instance, uses on Open Data to deliver access to UN databases through its UNdata service. Information is available under a proprietary license that simply states that consumers can copy, duplicate and distribute it provided that UNdata is always cited as the reference.

Another example of a service that follows the Open Data strategy is the OpenStreetMap project, an alternative to popular mapping services that is rapidly growing. All data managed by OpenStreetMap is obtained from the community and, in return, it is freely available for anyone to consume without any restriction. The only thing they ask is that anyone who uses their information credits the OpenStreetMap project as its source. This is stipluated in the license they use: the Open Data Commons Open Database License.

Why you Should Open your Data

Obviously, opening data is relatively easy for not-for-profit organizations. However, if you’re a company that needs to generate revenue you might be reluctant to allow free and unrestricted access to your information. One good reason to open your data is to provide content syndication. By opening your content to third-parties you’ll be driving more consumer traffic into your app which, in turn, can generate more business. This strategy works well for product comparison apps, classifieds and vertical search platforms such as commercial flights or hotels.

Amazon is one prominent company following this strategy. It has been opening formerly proprietary data in order to drive sales by exposing product information to the largest possible number of potential customers. Their Product Advertising API is a good example of how a company can expose a lot of business-related information without losing control of how it’s used by consumers. In the case of Amazon they make sure that their API terms of use explicitly defines how developers can use the obtained information. They protect themselves against possible competition by stating that only consumers who “do not have as their principal purpose advertising and marketing the Amazon Site and driving sales of products and services on the Amazon Site” can use the information. In this way, they protect against consumers that might want to do a full copy of the Amazon Website. This means that Amazon is not releasing Open Data per definition, but they are a good example of how to be inspired by the Open Data movement.

Twitter is another business that provides Open Data, although this time the purpose of providing free information is different. Their public statuses sample API endpoint lets anyone obtain a random sample of all public tweets. This information can be used by organizations studying behavior on the popular social network, or by companies interested in doing real-time analysis of what people are tweeting. In the first case, Twitter is able to promote its brand to people that would otherwise not communicate about it. Universities often use this endpoint as a means of doing research on topics such as sentiment analysis and natural language processing. By offering their public statuses sample, Twitter is able to tap into this audience at no cost, promoting its brand. In the second case, Twitter uses this endpoint to upsell their other commercial products that offer access to the full dataset.

How to Open your Data

Andreas Krohn from Dopter AB, during his Building Open Data Platforms presentation at our Platform Summit, explained that you shouldn’t “choose a technology first, but start by understanding the use cases and then adopt a technology that addresses it.” An important first step when opening your data is to identify your audience. The way you expose your data depends on who is going to consume it, and how they intend to use it.

If, for instance, you’re targeting journalists and you’re publishing statistical data, you should probably make it available as a CSV file that is easily imported into Excel. If, instead, developers are your target and your goal is to make the statistical information available on third-party apps, you should expose a public API. The most important thing is to understand how your data will be consumed and to adapt accordingly.

There are several tools that will help you transform data stored on databases into different formats, including ways to expose it as an API. If you’re using MySQL, there is a tool that lets you easily move information between your database and Excel. The MySQL for Excel tool lets you access a database from within Microsoft Excel, where you can easily import all your data.

Using the Appropriate License

Creative Commons provides a list of licensing options. Thier list of choices will help you pick the best possible license for your information. They even offer a wizard to help you choose wiseely. While Creative Commons is usually used with artistic works, the range of provided licenses is acceptable for Open Data as well.

If you don’t care how your information will be used, but want to guarantee that you will not be held responsible for its usage in any event, you can use a simple adaptation of the MIT License. While this license has been created for use with software, a few small changes to replace the word software with data can make it suitable for Open Data.

Open Data Commons is a project from the Open Knowledge Foundation created in 2008 to provide a legal framework for Open Data. It’s a not-for-profit organization whose main objective is to maintain a number of Open Data related licenses. Because these licenses have been specifically crafted to be used with Open Data, they’re probably your best option.


While Open Data is traditionally used by science and government organizations, nothing prohibits your company from benefiting from it and being inspired by it. In fact, companies like Amazon and Twitter are using similar strategies to help their businesses grow and generate more revenues. For all its benefits, it’s important to use caution when employing an Open Data strategy. Although it can help your business grow, care must be taken to assure that the free information you offer does not negatively affect your orgranization.

Open Data shouldn’t follow a specific format or standard. Instead it should be adapted to the way your consumers are going to use it. For example, opening data to a journalist involves a completely different format than targeting developers who are building third-party apps that consume your information. A number of tools are available to help you with the process of transforming information into accessible formats. Another thing that depends on the use case is the license you apply, indicating the way your data is to be consumed. Again, a range of options are available, from the most permissive MIT License to the more robust Open Data Commons. Choose the option that best fits your business objectives.

Are you already following an Open Data strategy? If not, what’s holding you back? Leave a comment here or get in touch to discuss this more!

About Bruno Pedro

Bruno Pedro is a Web and Business developer with over fifteen years’ experience in both startups and large corporations. He's the editor of API UX, a collaborative blog about API User Experience and maintainer of the API Changelog, an API documentation monitor and notification service.

About Andreas Krohn

Working with API Strategy and implementations at Dopter.se. Co-founder of Nordic APIs. Blogging about APIs in Swedish at mashup.se.

  • Varghese Mathew

    The information regarding product advertising API from Amazon is incorrect. In the post it says They protect themselves against possible competition by stating that only consumers who “do not have as their principal purpose advertising and marketing the Amazon Site and driving sales of products and services on the Amazon Site” can use the information.

    It says the opposite on Amazon: Unsuitable applications include those that:

    (a) do not have as their principal purpose advertising and marketing the Amazon Site and driving sales of products and services on the Amazon Site