Open data is defined as information which is free to use, develop and distribute. Large businesses and governments are often the main source for providing open data and this offers a fantastic opportunity for creative people to experiment, build side projects and commercial applications. In this article we take a look at three sources of open data, and give you some ideas for what you can do with it right now.

Open plaques

In the UK you’ll find many buildings with circular blue plaques on them, with over 900 plaques in London alone. You’ll find these on buildings and landmarks, and they exist to pay tribute to a place, event or person relevant to that location. Registered charity English Heritage commissioned the development of a blue plaque trail app which can be used to navigate the plaques in the nation’s capital. Using data, they took the plaque locations and built a digital narrative from them.

The English Heritage blue plaques app, offering a guided tour around London

The idea of the blue plaque is not unique (in fact, they’re not always blue or circular, either). Open Plaques was established in 2009 and is a community-based project aimed at cataloguing commemorative plaques across the world. Their datasets are massive and free to use.

The data available at Open Plaques offers up a world of opportunity for history enthusiasts, storytellers and designers to come together and build something new, from interactive timelines to 3D virtual worlds. Why stop at maps? Why not create your own research on the individuals commemorated and build your app around something different. You could group plaques by important moments in time or social movements, or by something a little more silly like the individual’s favourite food or drink, perhaps marrying this up to nearby venues. You don’t need to use all the data, it doesn’t need a commercial application, and you can take as long as needed. That’s the beauty of starting your own open data side project!

Your own movie app

The Internet Movie Database (IMDB) offers text files containing its data as an “alternative interface” to its website. The text files include everything from biographies, to actor names and movie goofs.

Undoubtedly, this data would require some processing before it could be used easily, but the raw format provided by IMDB is a little more structured and usable than the styled up web pages you’ll find on the website.

Open data offers a fantastic opportunity for creative people to experiment, build side projects and commercial applications

There are plenty of awesome things you can do with this information. You could create a random quotes generator which asks the user to guess the film, or you could even build a basic reviewing system where users can review a movie using only three words. If you wanted to build a commercial application, you could add purchase links to the app which earn you commission when the film is bought from a large distributor, such as Amazon.

The trusty old weather app!

The weather application is a favourite among designers. There is a finite set of requirements for a weather app, meaning designing one up is quite simple and predictable (unlike the weather!).

OpenWeatherMap offers vast amounts of forecasting data

OpenWeatherMap was setup to provide easy to use data on weather forecasting in realtime. It provides basic forecasts up to 16 days, but also offers historical data as well as related information, such as air pollution. Get creative building your app on the OpenWeatherMap’s data. Why not look at other data, such as the happiness rating of specific towns and cities, and see how this tallies up with the weather data? Or show the coming week’s forecast and take bets from app users as to the accuracy of the weather? Keep a league table of best-guessers!

You could also contribute back to the project by building an app which shows the weather based upon the data provided, and gathers user feedback on its accuracy. This will help feed the cycle of knowledge and improve the service offered by open data providers.

Hungry for more?

The data discussed in this article are the product of long term projects. If you’re looking for smaller, more localised information you can get it from government sources, such as data.gov.uk, but bear in mind this project is still in beta and finding exactly what you’re looking for can be tricky. As the appetite for open data grows, and greater transparency is requested of government, the datasets available will become more accurate and complete. That could result in the development of some truly remarkable applications.

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