A new open data culture in Northern Ireland

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In the past 20 years open data has gained in popularity with citizens proclaiming their right to access data and governments around the world increasing the amount of data that they release as ‘open’.

So what is open data?

Open data is data that’s available to everyone to access, use and share (Open Data Institute).  This type of data has been referred to as the ‘new raw material of the 21st century’ by Francis Maude, Minister for the UK Cabinet Office, as it will help hold governments to account, drive choice and improvements in public services and inspire innovation and enterprise that will spur economic and social growth (Open Data White Paper, UK Cabinet Office 2012).

What is the UK government doing?

The importance of open data was highlighted in Northern Ireland back in June 2013 at the G8 Summit at the Lough Erne resort in Fermanagh. The UK government and the other G8 members agreed an Open Data Charter which sets out five strategic principles that they will act on. This includes an expectation that all government data will be published openly by default, alongside principles to increase the quality, quantity and re-use of the data that is released. As well as signing up to the Charter the UK Government ranks 1st in the Global Open Data Index, which measures and benchmarks the openness of data around the world, and then presents this information in a way that is easy to understand and use. The UK Government has also led on open government as part of the Open Government Partnership and has developed a National Action Plan for 2013-15 which sets out a series of 20 commitments by the UK Government and one by the Scottish Government, with one theme in particular focused on open data.

What about the NI Government?

Northern Ireland is not included in the UK National Action Plan however there is movement in Northern Ireland for a more open government and the release of data in an open format. In February 2015 DFP Minister Simon Hamilton unveiled an Open Data Strategy for Northern Ireland (2015-2018). This strategy contains the framework and principles by which the government aims to build capacity for delivering open data. The implementation of this strategy will create an ‘open by default’ culture whereby the publishing of open data becomes part of everyday management practices in government. The strategy covers all of the Northern Ireland public sector.

This is not Northern Ireland’s first experience of open data. The Northern Ireland Assembly has led the way by developing an open data portal which provides easy access to the procedural information published by the Northern Ireland Assembly and is based on the Assembly Information Management System (AIMS), a central database which records and publishes information on MLAs and the procedural business of the Assembly. The Assembly IS Office has developed this site to provide the public with access to Assembly procedural information in a user-friendly way. The Assembly also launched an Open Data Project aimed at App Developers. The project allows data on the work of the Assembly and its Committees to be published in its raw form, increasing the ways in which the data can be used. The data can be copied, published and adapted, as well as collated with other statistics and information to create new products such as web and mobile phone applications.

Individual government departments have also been trying to establish an open data culture. The use of open data is highlighted in the Executive’s Innovation Strategy as ways to drive innovation in the economy. In 2014 the Minster for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Arlene Foster and the Minister for Finance and Personnel Simon Hamilton in conjunction with the CultureTech festival in Derry launched a £5,000 app design challenge. The ‘Open Data Challenge’ was about finding new and innovative ways to use open data and had over 30 applications.

What’s the voluntary / community sector doing?

There has also been a drive within the voluntary and community sector on open government and open data. The Northern Ireland Open Government Network was established in 2014. This network is currently an alliance of citizens and representatives of voluntary and community organisations aiming to engage in dialogue with the NI Executive to lobby for a more open form of government with open data as one of its key areas of focus.

In addition a new programme called Detail Data which is a collaboration between NICVA and The Detail has recently been established and will be launched in May 2015. This project is funded by the Big Lottery NI and Atlantic Philanthropies. The focus of this project will be:

  • To increase the frequency, quality and type of government data open for public use. This data will be available in a new data portal relevant to the sector.
  • To build the capacity of the sector on open data for stronger more effective advocacy and campaign in the sector
  • To provide a portal with relevant data for organisations to access and utilise to more accurately tell the stories of their people, families and communities they represent
  • To provide data for better service planning in the voluntary and community sector.

If you would like to know more on the Detail Data Project contact Andrea Thornbury, Project Co-ordinator, [email protected] or 028 9087 7777. 

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