Open Data Northern Ireland

Increasing transparency, accountability and efficiency in the public sector with open data.

This case study is the product of an interview with Iain Fleming (Open Data Strategy Lead, Open Data NI) and Cormac McConaghy (Portal Manager, Open Data NI).

Key facts

Service provider: Datopian

Client: Open Data Northern Ireland (NI)

Services: 

  • establishment of a data portal based on CKAN
  • custom data harvesters to consolidate data from other sources into the portal
  • management and provision of CKAN instances

Period: December 2015 – ongoing

Context

The Open Data Northern Ireland (NI) portal was developed as part of the Digital NI initiative. The government of Northern Ireland is committed to open data because they recognise that opening up data increases transparency, accountability and efficiency of the public sector. Moreover, they welcome the opportunity presented by open data to encourage new commercial activities and encourage economic growth.

The situation

Our clients at Open Data NI were looking at ways to refresh their open data strategy. When Iain Flemming joined the team in September 2018, the old strategy was barely known within the public sector and many civil servants were unfamiliar with the main tenets of open government. 

Open Data NI had launched a CKAN open data portal with Datopian in November 2015. A key goal of the new strategy was to increase the volume of high-value government datasets being published on the portal. To this end, the team had set concrete data publication targets. 

Since more civil servants knew about the portal than the open data strategy itself, the team knew they needed to use the portal as a figurehead for the campaign. It would form the point of departure from which the Open Data NI team could instil the values of open government in the lifeblood of the public sector.

The criteria

Considering publishing datasets should become second nature to those working within the civil service, it was crucial for the successes of the open data strategy that the portal be easy to use. It should not add another level of complexity to the work of civil servants and should certainly not take them 10 minutes just to publish one dataset.

“We want it to become a business-as-usual activity in the public sector, rather than some kind of specialised ‘techy-flavoured’ task” – Iain Fleming, Open Data Strategy Lead at Open Data NI

The solution

It made sense to the open data NI team to tie open data with an open-source software, and this was one of the main reasons they turned to Datopian for our expertise on the open-source data portal software CKAN. After an initial 12 months of the portal, the team said they were impressed and wanted to continue working with us.

One aspect of CKAN that was particularly attractive to the team is its DCAT metadata standards, a data catalog vocabulary used to describe datasets so that publishers can increase the discoverability of data. 

“Simplicity is key. I’ve worked with other systems to publish data that were very onerous to use and very off-putting from that perspective” – Cormac McConaghy, Portal Manager at Open Data NI

Outcomes

Datasets available on the Open Data NI portal can be used by anyone to build useful applications that help society, or investigate how effective policy changes have been over time.Open Data NI recently launched an ‘Open Data Innovation and Outreach Fund’ to further publicise the portal and the opportunities it presents for those looking to create apps using open data. The fund offers grants of between £300 and £5000 up to a total of £30,000. 

New use cases for the open data portal continue to appear. Belfast City Council ran a small business research initiative project to identify commercial properties that were classified as vacant by land and property services, but actually were occupied by commercial businesses that could have been paying rates or council tax. Open data played an important role in uncovering these businesses and recovered £350,000 in unpaid taxes. This particular case study provided the team with a prime example of the ways in which releasing open data can make better use of public money.

In the spirit of open data and transparency, the team also set up a ‘suggest a dataset’ form on the website, through which anyone can make suggestions for NI public datasets they would like to see published. 

What’s next?

When an individual joins the civil service in Northern Ireland, they have to read a suite of online learning packages as part of the onboarding process. These cover issues such as information security and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The open data NI team hopes to develop something similar on open government, open data and transparency. 

“We want to train every civil servant in Northern Ireland on the basic aspects of open data, transparency – and open government” – Iain Fleming, Open Data Strategy Lead at Open Data NI

The team also hopes to campaign for Open Budgeting, whereby the government would have to publish data on public spending. Fiscal transparency is a key target area for the team going forward. Datopian continues to provide our clients at Open Data NI with upgrades and new features, including workflow automations.