The launch of the US$25 Raspberry Pi – a credit-card sized computer built by a charity on open source principles – makes programming on pretty capable hardware widely accessible. Add to this the huge amount of data, such as maps, postcodes and a whole lot of open government material (data.gov.uk and the like) that is freely available in the cloud and you’ve got a powerful combination for innovation. 

The really exciting thing is that, unlike simple machines of the past such as BBC Micro and ZX Spectrum, the Raspberry Pi will not see users tinkering in splendid isolation. Through the internet they can connect not only to other users but also to a mass of data hosted in the cloud. 

Data such as high-resolution global mapping and satellite imagery was once too expensive for anyone but governments to afford. Now, because many of the big cloud providers are generating open source data, it’s freely available on your desktop computer (or mobile device, or Raspberry Pi). Facebook has even open-sourced its recipe for ‘how to build a state of the art data centre’. 

The challenge for innovators is to take advantage of this opportunity, and that means understanding its potential. What about smart cities, for example? Could devices like the Raspberry Pi running open source software provide the distributed computing power to link up traffic lights with GPS sensors in mobile phones to make the city’s traffic move more freely?  Could it be used to boost the development of self-driving vehicles? Or domestic robots? Or a more affordable version of something like the amazing da Vinci surgical robot? 

In order to innovate in this way, we need to know what’s possible and what’s affordable. Devices like the Raspberry Pi could help here too – improving programming and computer science skills in our schools and workplaces. This is particularly important for the UK, which was criticised last year by Google chairman Eric Schmidt for the poor quality of its computer science teaching and our failure to make the most of our great track record of innovation in computing. 

It’s just possible the buzz generated by the Raspberry Pi will help spark a new era of open source innovation. Now we must take advantage of it.