Northern Ireland: One year of open data “by default”?

Thu, Oct 13, 2016

Frédéric Dubois

Northern Ireland, with an estimated population of just under 2 million, hopped onto the open data bandwagon in 2015. Journalist Frédéric Dubois talked to OpenDataNI’s Cormac McConaghy to find out what has been accomplished since then.

Back in January 2015, Northern Ireland’s public sector released an open data strategy with the aim to “successfully implement and drive OPEN DATA BY DEFAULT“. In November 2015, with the help of Open Knowledge International, a small open data team located within Northern Ireland’s Department of Finance was able to launch a full open data portal.

Today, the OpenDataNI platform features 183 data sets from 37 different organisations (e.g., Belfast City Council, Driver and Vehicle Agency, Libraries Northern Ireland). This might at first glance seem like a small amount of data, relative to some portals such as Ireland Open Data (4476 data sets, 90 organisations) or even - with a comparable population size - Glasgow (360 data sets, 60 organisations), but remember that Northern Ireland just started. And this short history of tackling open data, is specifically what we’re interested in.

Best kept secret: government agencies are the first benefiters of open data

One of the main tenets of open data is to make government more transparent. This not only holds true for enabling public scrutiny. Government itself re-uses the aggregated versions of data pushed out on the OpenDataNI portal, as inter-agency sharing of information is often limited. Funnily enough, it seems that the very first impact of making data available on this platform over the last year was to “break up information silos“ in government.

When it comes to the platform itself, “an open data analysis was done 1,5 years ago. We found out that we wanted to focus on simplicity,” McConaghy reveals. “No technical expertise is needed to upload data sets,” he adds. That’s also true form a user’s perspective, where the no frills platform makes it easy to find data.

Technically speaking, OpenDataNI receives its data sets directly from people in government departments or city councils. They upload databases to the portal. In the open data movement jargon, that’s called ‘proactive publication’. Now, in the case we’re looking at, such publication is still relatively low. “Technology is the simple part,” says McConaghy, project lead at OpenDataNI. Changing “cultural working practices”, as he puts it “is tough”.

Fast-tracking mass adoption with data harvesting and open source

One way to speed-up the publication – and to reach mass adoption of the portal - is to automate publication of data sets through so-called ‘harvesting’. On its first anniversary, the Northern Irish portal harvests data sets from one source only.

Another way to have people buy-in to open data and get addicted to a portal is to facilitate commercial opportunities drawing on the published data. Now how do you generate economic value with open data? Apart from a few high profile cases in which open data apps have been successfully commercialised, it remains a challenge in relatively small jurisdictions like Northern Ireland, to innovate. But McConaghy and his team are going for it.

After pocketing the support of Northern Ireland’s Minister of Finance, OpenDataNI launched the OpenDataNI Challenge 2016 Using Open Data for Education. The bad news is that the challenge closing date was 28 September 2016. The good news is that there were 15 entrances and that 6 of them will be invited to turn their idea of how “to harness the power of public sector open data on OpenDataNI in the development of new teaching resources which can be used by [primary and secondary] schools“ into simple (open source) prototypes. They will have six weeks and seed funding to do so. The top 2 prototypes will then receive £20,000 each to turn them into working versions. The challenge, as well as regular Twitter use, as well as conferences are just some oft he ways in which the McConaghy’s open data team is working towards making the portal mainstream

Journalists as a driving force behind open data

But beyond the economic benefit that an open data portal such as Northern Ireland’s can help generate, is there any ‘democratic benefit’? That’s a tough question to ask to a one year old, but already OpenDataNI is having some success according to McConaghy: “Many of the requests for data sets we get on the platform are from journalists”. In particular, journalists that would frequently make access to information requests, now have a further tool at hand to dig into government affairs. This is the case for instance of The Detail, a team of investigative reporters dedicated to in-depth coverage of public interest issues. The Belfast-based team even took a seat on the OpenDataNI advisory board to help the platform evolve.

Although it is being well received by the local developer and IT community, OpenDataNI is hoping to gain traction with the general public, especially through partnerships. Real-time bus information and other features related to smart cities, for instance, are the next logical steps. These concrete cases in which detailed data sets can be used in daily life - on a mobile or any other device - are part of McConaghy’s dream for mass adoption of open data.


Frédéric Dubois is a journalist based in Berlin. He is the Managing editor of Internet Policy Review, an open access journal on internet regulation - published by the Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society. He writes about the internet governance, new media, & open data. Frédéric is the co-editor of two books on media & journalism, as well as author & producer of award-winning interactive features. On Twitter: @fredericdubois