Detail Data

The Detail Data project is a BIG Lottery NI funded partnership between NICVA and The Detail investigative journalism website.

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How can open data benefit Northern Ireland?

As technology becomes more and more a part of everyday life, people become accustomed to accessing information freely and easily.

There are now newly established standards for the sharing of information, under the concept of Open Data. It is one further stage in the evolution of digital services, enabling greater levels of transparency and citizen participation, the ability to collaborate and develop new applications, and an environment in which to innovate better service delivery.

This presents unique challenges and opportunities for Northern Ireland: government, charities, business and civic society. Number one on the agenda is gaining access to the data itself.

Government is the gatekeeper of a huge amount of data of untold usefulness. This is different from what we might call “statistics”, as stats usually summarise data for a specific purpose e.g. how many road accidents were there this month? The raw data can actually be more important as its potential is much less limited.

If this data were open for use, third parties could make it easier to find out information and interpret the results. What’s more, developers are able to create solutions using this data that allow a greater degree of user engagement with public services.

So how about some examples? Publicly-held information includes data on GP practices and prescriptions. If opened up a developer could solve how to monitor practice performance in a user-friendly way to deliver better services to patients. A data scientist could easily analyse prescribing information to find if any wastage exists in the system and identify improvements (as with the Prescribing Analytics project in NHS England). Or, to use another real-world example, harnessing official road safety data to find less risky travel routes.

Authority for releasing the data rests with responsible departments individually. However, there is a co-ordinated approach present across central government in NI with the Open Data Team at DFP, engaging and supporting departments in opening up high-value datasets. The recent Open Data Strategy also maps out how ‘digital by default’ will become the new reality in Northern Ireland’s public sector.

There is further potential and challenge brought by the formation of new councils with added powers. There will no doubt be a high degree of detailed information relating to local area planning that could be made freely and easily available. But with 11 separate organisations responsible for the upkeep and publication of this data, a singular stream of open data that is reliable and accurate becomes less certain.

Of course, we should be aware that it’s not only government that holds useful data that could be made open, though it is important that it acts as a leader. Businesses (e.g. NI’s utilities companies), charities (including NICVA) and universities can all contribute in their own way. And it’s not only corporate data that matters: many of the most innovative projects have harnessed user-contributed data.

In addition to this data being made available, it’s also important that it be licenced in a way that enables it to be reused and shared openly. So while much of the above data might be available in some form or another (whether publicly-accessible online or only via Freedom of Information requests), it’s actually how the data is published that is important. Putting data online in a PDF might be reasonable for the familiar consumer of public information, but for those who seek to mine the data, develop applications and create new products, a better format is needed.

As part of our work in the Detail Data project we’ll be seeking that the data needed most is identified and made available, that it exists in the correct format and is licensed appropriately, and that the community and voluntary sector is prepared and able to benefit from the edge that this will bring.





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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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NICVA Partner With The Detail On Lottery Funded Project

Kathryn Torney (The Detail), Joanne McDowell (Big Lottery Fund NI), Stephen McCaffery (The Detail) and Lisa McEleherron (NICVA)

A project that will use the power of information to allow the voluntary and community sector in Northern Ireland to better support people most in need has been awarded a grant of £500,000 from the Big Lottery Fund.

NICVA has partnered with The Detail, an investigative news and analysis website, for the Detail Data project, which will equip community and voluntary groups to better understand the needs of communities, plan their services and support vulnerable sections of society. The project is being supported with a grant of £500,000 from The Big Lottery fund.

NICVA’s member groups, and other interested groups or organisations in the community and voluntary sector, will work with The Detail to analyse, collect and present information on issues affecting their communities in areas such as education, health and justice. Those who take part will be supported and trained to use the information to support the people they work with. This will be done through a mix of training, conferences, seminars and events where open data will be de-mystified and it's potential explained in more depth. A network of 'data champions' for the voluntary and community sector will also be established, meaning the potential for using open data will be embedded in the sectors work.

A publicly accessible online data store will also be developed. This will house a range of data that will be of use to the sector, there will be training in how to use the datastore and understand the data and a helpdesk for those looking for data to help them in their work.  It is also expected that the three-year project will publish 30 high impact data driven news stories on issues of relevance to the voluntary and community sector.



NICVA chief executive Seamus McAleavey said: “We know that the community and voluntary sector could make better use of the huge amount of data that there is available, if they knew how to find and examine the data.

“NICVA has been developing the sector's skills in the use of data for some time. This project will help us extend that work so it reaches even greater numbers of people.

“This project will give the sector those skills, and they can then use the information to identify gaps and plan better services, leading to better outcomes for the people they work with.

“We are pleased to be working with The Detail, and with our links to the sector and their journalism skills the project will help communities articulate their needs in a powerful and meaningful way.”

Editor of The Detail Steven McCaffery said: “Journalism is about empowering people with information. This project will ensure that our data journalism can help the voluntary and community sector to better understand and voice the needs of people and communities.

“The Detail has pioneered the use of data journalism in Northern Ireland, examining huge datasets on issues including education, health, the economy and the administration of justice.

“Our award winning reporting has shed light on important subjects, but by connecting our data journalism to organisations working at community level it can become a tool to be used to benefit the lives of people across Northern Ireland.  NICVA’s network of voluntary and community sector groups are ideal partners. We are delighted that the Big Lottery Fund is supporting this vital project.”           

Big Lottery Fund NI Director Joanne McDowell said: “We are delighted to announce this grant to The Detail to deliver the Detail Data project. We hope this project will empower community and voluntary groups to use the huge range of information now available to support people and communities who need our help the most.”

Recruitment for the project will begins shortly, you can follow the project on Twitter @detaildata





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