By Franck Carassus, CEO North America of Opendatasoft

The Business of Mobility is an Urban Mobility Company series highlighting some of the most successful new businesses in the mobility sector. Featuring a closer look at the way in which companies stand out, CEOs, Directors and other c-level executives elaborate on what it takes to turn a great idea into a great company.

In 2011 David Thoumas, Jean-Marc Lazard and Franck Carassus (Founder & COO) were part of the team involved in creating the French national open data platform. At the time they were all working at Exalead, a subsidiary of French software giant Dassault Systèmes. Working on the project convinced them that data sharing was the future; a future worth investing in. In 2016 Franck moved to Boston, USA, and began taking their business idea to the market. Eight years on and Opendatasoft has some serious clients on their books.

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Where did it all begin?

It’s truly amazing that public organisations across the world are giving ordinary citizens access to their data. If you had to put a date on the shift, then perhaps it was the start of Obama’s presidency in 2008. He was visionary on tech in that he recognised data would become, like the financial system, a way for Central, State and Local governments to fuel business-creation and encourage innovation. People talk of data being the new oil; but I think Obama realised that a better metaphor is to think of data as air, i.e. free and inspiring.

Thanks to Obama’s vision, you can go onto America’s DATA.GOV today and “conduct research, develop web and mobile applications, design data visualisations, and more…” Open data like this inspired countless startups, many of which are now unicorns.

Europe versus America

In 2011, David, Marc and I were working on France’s version of the US’s DATA.GOV when it struck us that we needed to commit to this future. European tech stakeholders sometimes feel inferior to their counterparts in the US – the land of Apple and Amazon. I was also thinking about this when four years ago I moved to Boston to establish Opendatasoft as a North American, as well as a European, brand. The US has incredible talent in the tech world – particularly Boston with its wonderful educational institutions – so it was a good move for Opendatasoft. But I am glad to say that Europe has some important lessons to offer about data sharing.

Mobility and Europe

When it comes to innovation, America is truly the world’s tech champion. But in terms of collaboration and intuition, Europe has much to offer. For a start it really made sense to be partly headquartered in Paris, the city that leads the urban mobility revolution. And today we count Open Data Paris as one of our most important clients.

Europe’s public transport operators are leading the way on open data and we’re helping them do so. Although Obama was pivotal to data sharing, interestingly it was before him (in 2003) that the EU put out a directive “on the reuse of public sector information”. Since then we’ve had the PSI (public sector information) Directive and more recently the Open Data Directive (2017), with the aim that data should be “open by design and open by default”. That’s a handy principle and one Opendatasoft can deliver as a turnkey to clients. So, not surprising that we picked up clients like the Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) , STAR (Rennes’ PT operator), SAEMES (who manage street parking in Paris) and Infrabel (see interview here), who manage Belgium’s railway network.

An attitude of transparency

It’s all about creating a data transparent platform that’s relevant to different ‘personas’. The key persona is the technical person who is designing an API to leverage your data for a business idea, or perhaps an initiative for social good. You want to make it as easy as possible for them to create something brand new out of your raw data.

Another ‘persona’ is the ordinary citizen who is exercising their right to look into whether public bodies are fulfilling their mandate. The issue could be punctuality of trains, or perhaps the green credentials of the supply chain, or even information on gender. Here we need to ‘visualize’ for the citizen a way of consuming the data as relevant information. For this we collaborate closely with the company we are working with to find what interesting facts and figures we can share with the public and what sort of graphs can best communicate it. I think the data revolution is encouraging an attitude of transparency. In the past companies preferred to hide their dirty laundry, but now you can gain real credibility by letting the facts speak for themselves.

Generally the world is moving to more transparency about data. But we are a SaaS business who relies on cloud computing, so we do sometimes get pushback from clients who are uncomfortable with cloud hosting. Hosting can be done in a different country if that’s an issue, but I think clients are realising that the point is transparency and sharing, and that they have nothing to hide anyway.

Having fun with data

If you’re interested in checking out how it works, it takes a couple minutes to sign on to Infrabel and you have immediate access to some crazy statistics. Infrabel even has stats on the average number of teleworking days per teleworker; and you can see the graph that shows exactly what Covid did to these numbers, jumping from six or seven teleworking days per person per quarter, to over forty. That’s on the human resources theme – there’s plenty more extraordinary data along the other themes: infrastructure, traffic control, security, clients and products, finance. Open Data Paris also has some interesting themes, including culture, mobility and public space, and environment. Thanks to the mobility theme, you can see for yourself available bikes and bike racks.

What’s the business case

Our business is a straight subscription model: it’s about helping private and public players get better at sharing their data. In this, public players are incentivised by credibility, political pragmatism, and social good. That makes our jobs very meaningful because we’re on the leading edge of this new expression of social good. In the future, politicians won’t give you a long speech of everything they’ve done, they’ll simply say: “go look at the data”.

It’s also great being part of the new mobility revolution and it’s exciting that Europe is playing a leading role in MaaS, which of course relies heavily on open data.

In the first few years of our business it was all about serving the public sector. But things are changing. Now there is pressure on private players to also share their data and show their CSR (corporate social responsibility) credentials. Yes, companies are worried about competition, but if data sharing becomes the new standard, then it will become standard practice across industries.

The future of data and mobility

When we started I don’t think we realised how important mobility would be to us. Today our key clients are in the mobility sector or related to the industry in some way. Urban mobility is a leader in data sharing because there is political will from cities to reduce pollution and congestion and serve the needs of ordinary citizens. Mobility is also a field where you have powerful public players mixing it up with exciting startups. As data specialists, we find ourselves in the centre of this revolution, and I can’t wait to see the many innovative ways in which data will be used to develop sustainable mobility services.

Did you miss Opendatasoft at Autonomy Digital 2.0? Connect to the platform today and catch up on their panel discussion, “De la collecte à la publication en open data : comment la ville de Paris utilise les données de comptage vélos.”