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Incubating open data services for social impact



Open Data Institute


Research Programme

Project brief

Provide specialist capacity and expertise in user and market research to ensure delivery against market reality.

Each £1 spent on the Open Data Challenge Series is likely to return £5-10 for the UK economy in 3 years.

This report shows how startup businesses are creating surprising new citizen services with open data, that have the potential to be commercially very successful.

Baroness Martha Lane Fox

Board member of Open Data Institute and Chancellor of the Open University

The challenge

Nesta and the Open Data Institute were running their Open Data Challenges programme. The programme consists of seven social challenge prizes, which are awarded to innovative, financially sustainable and socially-focused service ideas that use open data as part of their core value proposition. Challenge themes included criminal justice; education; energy and environment; housing; food; heritage and culture; jobs.

In order to maximise social impact of the programmes, Nesta and the Open Data Institute needed to ensure that the teams who applied for prizes were basing their innovations on both real need and market opportunity.

Specialist capacity was required to provide expertise in user and market research. This helped ensure delivery against the Digital Service Standard’s requirements; understanding user needs; planning ahead for on-going user research; and continuously seeking feedback from users to improve services. Expert mentoring was also required, to support teams applying for awards to keep people and customers at the heart of their solutions.


What we did

We conducted qualitative stakeholder research around each theme and produced insight reports to support challenge participants in aligning their propositions. We offered light-touch mentoring to 105 participating digital services and in-depth incubation to 21 finalist digital services. The support included advice on conducting user and market research, refining the service blueprint, prototyping, piloting, and developing a sustainable business model. 

The results

Impact analysis predicts that over 3 years the programme will result in:

  • A return of £5 – £10 to the UK economy, for every £1 invested, this equates to a generation of £5.3m to £10.8m (GVA)
  • The creation of 75 to 141 jobs
  • Potential to generate further significant wider social and environmental impacts

Read the full report here.


The Open Data Challenge Series has developed a replicable model that we hope will drive real, quantifiable, social and economic value from exploiting open data. We’ve applied the process to fields as diverse as employment, food, education and crime with some great results and my sense is that we have only just scratched the surface of what might be possible.

Helen Goulden, Executive Director of Nesta’s Innovation Lab

Download a copy of the Open Data Challenge
Some of the service ideas we supported, which won the Challenge, can be viewed here:

Skills Route

Community Energy Manager



Performance in Context

Check that Bike

Each £1 spent on the Open Data Challenge Series could generate £5-10 for the UK economy in 3 years. Read the full report here.

The user research reports we produced for each challenge can be downloaded below:


Energy and environment



Heritage and culture