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As more of Asia's governments open up their data for public scrutiny, western companies looking to gain a foothold in the region now have greater access to low-cost means of gaining insights into their target markets.

Such open source data can be used to evaluate partners or possible acquisition targets, select manufacturing locations based on workforce requirements, optimise sales and distribution networks, and fine-tune pricing and promotions.

"Open data lowers the barriers for entry by levelling the playing field ? for businesses large and small. In evaluating their expansion options in Asia, MNCs can use open data to gain deeper insights into the markets they aim to serve as well as the sequence and methods for market entry," said Sean Dunphy, Director, Deloitte Analytics in Singapore.

The 2012 International Open Government Data Conference announced that over 1 million data sets from governments around the world are available on the internet. While Asia still lags in this area, the situation has improved in recent years with the launch of government-sponsored portals including Singapore's data.gov.sg, Hong Kong's data.one.gov.hk, and, more recently, data.go.id in Indonesia.

"The policy drivers behind increased openness include transparency and civic engagement as well as entrepreneurship and innovation, but there's also growing demand from open data communities comprising developers, civic hackers, academics, and data journalists," said Dunphy.

The 2014 Global Open Data Index ? which measures the accessibility of free data sets offered by governments around the world ? ranks India at no. 9 and Taiwan at no. 10, the highest Asian entries on the list. Japan is then next at 18 and South Korea at 29. In Southeast Asia, Indonesia fares best at 45, with Hong Kong at 58 and Singapore at 69.

Outside of government sources, there is also a growing collection of global open data repositories which MNCs to can tap into. Most notably, www.quandl.com provides links to approximately 10 million data sets from sources such as the World Bank, the UN, and IMF. Datacatalogs.org also provides links to over 300 official open data repositories.

Common data sources include historical, real-time and projected economic and trade statistics, weather and climate conditions, cadastral maps that show property boundaries, construction data and property prices, public transit timetables and usage, population and housing censuses, and government budgets and spending.

"Companies seeking foreign market access are usually looking for either customers or suppliers. The purpose of the market access would determine the type of data set required: ranging from macroeconomic data to specific information about consumer demand or sourcing availability," said Tom Mouhsian, Principal Advisor, Financial Services, KPMG in Singapore.

For instance, organisations with branch networks, such as retailers and banks, need to constantly adapt their physical outlets to a tract and retain customers. In Singapore, a client of Deloitte required access to real-time data on street-level traffic congestion to craft its in-store promotions and its broader real estate strategy.

The proliferation of free information has even led to the emergence of businesses whose entire model is predicated on open data. These include Parkopedia, which developed an app that allows drivers to find and compare commercial, street and private parking on their computer or mobile phone using open source data.

The US-based company operates in over 50 countries, including Singapore, and most recently opened an office in Shanghai in December 2014. A dedicated team sourced for open data on car parks and street parking, but when that wasn't available it had to physically survey information on spaces.

However, data experts advised companies to recognise the limitations of open source data in devising their market strategies.

"While general data such as macroeconomic, country- or industry-level data may be free, more granular data that targets a specific market segment would usually require further professional analysis and thus be subject to either a subscription or a separate consulting fee," said Mouhsian.

Translating open data into concrete action would also require further resources and investments. Parkopedia founder and CEO Eugene Tsyrklevich noted that the company faced considerable obstacles in integrating data from a vast number of different sources when building the database for its parking information app.

"The problem is every organisation has a slightly different concept of what data is and in a different format. So when we get data from 400 different local authorities, we literally get 400 different pieces of information in 400 different formats," said Tsyrklevich at an industry conference in the UK.

Edited by Philip Fenton and Clement Quek. This article was first published on Singapore Business News.

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