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Open Data in Ireland - where are we now?

Posted by Dominic Byrne on Mon, 19 Dec 2011 22:38:42 GMT

View of Martello Tower from Portmarnock Beach, Fingal (Bathing Water & Beaches datasets)

Fingal Open Data was launched 10 months ago today and became the first Open Data website in the Republic of Ireland.

At the time of the launch we looked forward to our site being joined by many more Irish Open Data sites from both Local and Central Government.  However, 10 months on, Fingal Open Data remains the only Government Open Data website in the country.  So has there been any progress in this time and is there any chance of more Irish Government agencies joining the Open Data movement?

What has happened?
Fingal Open Data launched in November, 2010 with 64 datasets.  Since then the site has grown and now contains 92 published datasets.  During this time, a number of apps and services have been created using data from the site including a Bring Bank app, Disabled Parking Spaces app, Find your Polling Station website and an Interactive Map of Traffic Camera locations.  All of these services are featured in the Applications section of the Fingal Open Data website.

Not long after the launch of Fingal Open Data, the website opendata.ie was created to provide access to data generated by Irish Government agencies in open formats.  This was an initiative of people from DERI and the Open Data Ireland Google Group.  The next milestone was in May, 2011 when the Irish Internet Association (IIA) incorporated an Open Government and Open Data theme into their annual conference.  This raised awareness of Open Data amongst those attending and acted as a catalyst for various companies and agencies to start engaging in an Open Data conversation.

The first outcome from this increased engagement was Ireland’s first Open Data Challenge organised by the National Digital Research Centre in partnership with Fingal County Council, Dublin City Council, Microsoft and the IIA.  The event was held in July 2011 and was a great success resulting in the development of 10 business propositions based on Open Data.

Open Data Challenge
Participants at Ireland's First 18-hour Open Data Challenge

The second outcome was the establishment of a cross-industry National Open Data Working Group facilitated by Enterprise Ireland.  The objective of this group is to produce a report for Government on Open Data and work is progressing on this.

The most recent development in Open Data in Ireland was the announcement of the Dublin Region’s DUBlinked initiative. This is a partnership of the 4 Dublin Local Authorities - Dublin City Council, Dún Laoghaire/Rathdown County Council, Fingal County Council, South Dublin County Council - and NUI Maynooth.  The aim of DUBlinked is to create an Innovation Network to develop solutions to the problems that face the Dublin City Region.  A fundamental component of the network is a data initiative, which will include the publication of Open Data for the Dublin region.  The DUBlinked initiative will be launched in October.

Where are we now?
In my view, the two main reasons why Open Data is not more widespread in Ireland are (i) the lack of Applications and Services developed using Open Data and (ii) the lack of published Open Data.  This has resulted in a catch-22 situation - without apps and services the value of Open Data cannot be easily demonstrated to Government agencies so that they can be persuaded to release their data; without the data being released there is a limit to the apps and services that can be developed.  That is why we need more apps and services developed using existing Open datasets - right now that means data from Fingal Open Data.  If there are datasets that we could release which would enable the development of interesting apps and services, just let us know at opendata@fingal.ie and we’ll see if we can get them published.

We should also not underestimate the challenge that Government faces to release data.  Government agencies are currently working to maintain existing levels of services while finances and staffing levels are falling.  Releasing Open Data requires effort and in the current climate that requires a compelling business case.  I believe that we can make that business case and that it contains two main components - (i) economic development opportunities and (ii) improved efficiencies and cost-savings for Government.

BEAT Centre
Balbriggan Enterprise and Training Centre, Balbriggan, Fingal (Enterprise Centres dataset)

The economic development opportunity is the potential for Open Data to be used as the basis for the development of apps, products and services - not just for the Irish market, but designed for the European and World markets with the capability of utilising Open Data from other countries.  Open Data should therefore be one of the pillars of Ireland’s smart economy.  The economic potential of Government data has been recognised by the European Union since 2003 when the Reuse of Public Sector Directive was adopted for the purpose of stimulating economic activity, innovation and competition and assisting in the evolution of an information and knowledge-based economy and society.  In a 2009 report, the European Commission cited the value of the EU Public sector data market at an estimated €27 billion.

There is also an opportunity within the public sector for improved efficiencies through the pursuit of an Open Data policy.  Open Data should form part of corporate information management strategies.  Open Data infrastructures should be designed to also facilitate internal corporate data sharing.  Agencies can then save time and money by enabling improved and easier access to internal data resources and with minimal extra effort publish approved datasets to the public Open Data website.  In addition, by utilising compatible infrastructures and/or protocols the public sector can facilitate inter-agency data sharing and more joined-up Government.  The Fingal Data Hub project provides a model for how this can be achieved.  Cost savings can also be achieved by publishing data subject to Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation as Open Data.  If the public can be encouraged to download the information that they require from the Open Data website, this has the potential to reduce the effort involved in responding to individual FOI requests and extracting specific information from databases.

What needs to happen next?
If we are to encourage more Irish Government agencies to publish Open Data, a number of things need to happen -

  • We need a National Open Data policy which states that Government departments, agencies and local authorities should publish Open Data.  The objectives of such an Open Data policy would be (i) economic development (ii) transparency (iii) participation and (iv) inter-agency and cross-sector collaboration.
  • Government agencies should identify and release data that is subject to FOI.  When making FOI requests, the public should be encouraged to utilise Open Data and to request that datasets be published as Open Data where appropriate.
  • Create a standardised Open Data technical infrastructure that can be rapidly deployed at low cost (open source tools already exist for this purpose), that are suitable for any public sector agency of any size and complexity and that can also be utilised for internal data-sharing requirements and for inter-agency data sharing.
  • Those agencies that currently publish data under restrictive licences should change to a more open licence where possible - at a minimum the Irish PSI licence.
  • Create an Irish Open Data licence - this should take into account the content of the Open Data Commons Open Data Licence and the UK Government Open Government Licence.
  • Develop standards for formats, protocols, vocabularies, etc.  This work should happen in parallel with the release of Open Data.  It no way should it be used as an excuse for not releasing data.  The standards can be developed and applied retrospectively, but the most important objective is to get data released in open formats under open licences.
  • Raise awareness within the Public Sector of Open Data and its benefits, and demonstrate that Open Data is an opportunity and need not be seen as a threat.  To address the issue of possible misinterpretation of datasets, encourage comprehensive metadata and the release of briefing notes in conjunction with datasets where required. 

We believe that a business case can be made for the release of Open Data by Government.  Some immediate practical steps can also be taken to encourage the release of more Irish Open Data and to facilitate public sector agencies in releasing data.  Within the next month, we look forward to Fingal Open Data being joined by DUBlinked and hopefully in the near future, more Irish Government Open Data websites.  Although Fingal Open Data is still the only Government Open Data website in the Republic of Ireland, a lot has happened in the last 10 months - let’s keep that momentum going and perhaps we can even speed it up.

Dominic Byrne,
Fingal County Council.

16th September, 2011

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