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What is data democratization and why is it important?

data democratization important

Data is now crucial to everyone’s lives. That means we need to democratize access to data and ensure it is available to all, through experiences that are seamless and easily understandable. Here we outline the benefits of data democratization to businesses, employees, citizens and the public sector, and the challenges to delivering it.

Anne-Claire Bellec
VP of Marketing , Opendatasoft
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Everyone’s personal and professional lives rely on data, particularly when it comes to making decisions. But data can seem daunting and often requires specialist skills to understand and manipulate it. Ensuring that everyone has the full picture means democratizing access to data and ensuring it is available to all. So what is data democratization and what benefits does it deliver to organizations as well as individuals?

Everyone now understands the importance of data, in both our professional and personal lives. Digitization, smartphones and Internet of Things (IoT) sensors all contribute to an increasing volume of data all around us. Harnessing this information is critical to business competitiveness and to empower people in their daily lives. During the COVID pandemic for example data-driven organizations adapted more skillfully and were able to make better decisions within much shorter timeframes.

Essentially, data is now everyone’s business. This is driving the need for data democratization – opening up information so that it can be used by all, through whichever device they choose and without requiring special skills or tools. Data is the new content – everyone can create and share other content, whether text, photo or video-based. The same ease-of-use needs to be applied to data.

 

Data democratization delivers benefits for individuals – whether employees making better decisions or citizens understanding more about the performance of public bodies. However, it is important to stress that it also provides wider benefits to businesses, their partners, and the public sector.

 

Business benefits through self-service

In an era of globalization and increasing competition, data is key to competitiveness. Providing data through self-service across the organization underpins digital transformation, increases efficiency, enables more agile operations, and unlocks innovation. Empowering staff with data leverages their skills, gives them a sense of purpose, and increases engagement.

Construction materials group Saint-Gobain has created a self-service data portal for all of its employees, sharing information in an easy-to-use manner with staff in 66 countries and enabling them to work more effectively.

 

Partner benefits through data services

Businesses now operate in partnership ecosystems, working closely with suppliers, customers and other stakeholders to drive success. Sharing data and creating new data services is essential to smooth partnerships and can open up new revenue streams. Combining different sources of information delivers added value to all players. For example, Schneider Electric has created a data platform that delivers new data services for its partners, building a community of experts to share ideas and concepts across the energy sector.

 

Public sector benefits by opening data and strengthening transparency

As with businesses, public sector employees can make more informed, data-driven decisions through access to the right information. Importantly, they can be more transparent – explaining why decisions have been made and policies created, based on data. Opening data more widely, such as with other public sector bodies or the private sector is the catalyst for improving services and the experience for citizens, increasing transparency and trust.

The North Carolina Office of State Budget and Management (OSBM) shares over 900 datasets through its LINC open data portal, covering everything from demographics to comparative information with other states. This supports more informed decision making across its public sector community, while giving citizens and businesses deeper insight into their state.

 

However, despite the huge investment in data tools and technologies over the last 30+ years, we have not fully democratized access to data for four key reasons:

 

Data means different things to different people

If you ask people what they understand by the term “data” you’ll get a range of answers. For some, it is focused on their personal data, which they want to protect when they are online. For others, it is the information they need to do their jobs. But often people don’t understand the potential positive impact that data can have on their lives.

As Olivier Thereaux of the Open Data Institute explains in this blog, we need to understand these differences and work to create a definition of data that covers all its potential uses, and encourages people to harness data more effectively.

Data is often siloed

Even though more and more data is being collected, it is not widely shared. Instead, it becomes stuck in silos – whether inside company departments or specific organizations. This means businesses miss out on its full value – both to help their own operations become more effective and efficient, and to drive innovation. Opening data drives fresh opportunities and ways of using data, such as launching new services with partners or other stakeholders.

 

Data remains in the hands of experts

The majority of current data tools require specific training and skills to use properly. For example, data warehouses and business intelligence tools are the domain of IT and business analysts. That puts them out of reach of most people – the very people that need data in their professional and personal lives. In fact, as the majority of people are not used to working with data, this can create mental barriers – they can’t see themselves accessing and benefiting from data and so don’t want to try.

Making it easy for users to access the right data, in a self-service way, is therefore essential for its democratization. People need to be educated to remove any concerns that may make them think that using data is too difficult or not for them.

 

Organizational culture does not encourage sharing

Traditionally organizations have been split into different departments (sales, customer service, IT, accounts), all responsible for specific activities. Each department had its own objectives which it focused on, leading to potential rivalries with other teams. To get the benefits of data democratization this old-style culture needs to be replaced with one that focuses on sharing data and using it to drive better collaboration and decision-making.

However, changing culture is not easy. It is a major project that must be led from the top, but that involves and convinces everyone. Again, employees and other potential users (citizens, partners, consumers) all need to be educated about the benefits that data brings to them, and how it can empower them in order to drive greater usage.

 

In the early 2000s the concept of open data was born, initially focused on the public sector. Individuals within organizations realized they possessed large volumes of public information that could be of interest to the wider community and set out to share it. For example, census data or information on air quality collected by IoT sensors was both useful to other groups and provided a way to demonstrate transparency and accountability to taxpayers and citizens.

Many countries passed legislation mandating that public bodies share their data. Events such as Open Data Day, hackathons and public data portals all contributed to grow the movement. Businesses then saw the benefits and applied the same open data principles across their operations.

 

Open data to increase transparency

Open data has made a major contribution towards data democratization. However, despite the enthusiasm and time of those who have worked to share data, it has not succeeded in bringing data into the mainstream of everyone’s lives. Often open data was made available in bulk through online catalogs, but without the context required for non-specialists to understand and manipulate it. Equally, expert skills were still required to combine different datasets and create maps and graphics.

 

Providing self-service data

To gain real value from data, it must be simple for anyone to consume and re-use, whatever their skills or knowledge. They shouldn’t need to ask permissions to access data or require analysts to run queries for them – the whole process should be based on self-service. That is true data democratization. In fact, consumers or employees may not think of the information they are using as “data” at all – just something that helps them live their lives or do their job.

 

Creating new data services

Rather than simply opening up data and hoping that someone will get value, data democratization delivers relevant, tailored experiences around information across the ecosystem. What are the specific questions that people have, and how can our data be provided in ways that will help people find the answers themselves? What new data services can we create to benefit our user community and what new revenue streams can this deliver?

Full democratization requires a deep understanding of the ecosystem around your data, listening to their needs and creating compelling, easy-to-use experiences. Often these user needs are very varied, meaning that organizations must deliver a range of experiences, tailored to different groups, such as partners, customers, citizens, employees and consumers.

 

Democratizing data has never been more important to us all, given the central importance of information to our private and professional lives. Organizations have invested heavily to collect and centralize data but it often still remains in the hands of experts. Breaking down these silos and making it available to all by adding an experience data layer to their data stack will help deliver on existing investments and programs, unleashing the true power of data to benefit us all.

 

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