Beyond Transparency – could NI embrace open data?

Open Data initiatives in Northern Ireland have been – to date – relatively stumbling affairs that fall far behind London-led efforts. (The inability to use Translink timetable and bus stop geocode data to build an independent third-party NI travel app was particularly exasperating.)

However, there has been some movement and the alignment of planets, keen civil servants who recognise the benefits and a new Minister of Finance & Personnel Simon Hamilton creates hope that the drawers to the electronic filing cabinets holding some of our public data will soon be opened up.

This morning, NISP Connect, Momentum NI, DETI and DFP are hosting a discussion about Open Data. The Open Data Institute and UK National Archives will be participating along with local techies and data wranglers. DETI’s draft Northern Ireland Innovation Strategy is out for consultation until 16 December and “highlights the importance of leveraging the data produced and held within the public sector to stimulate the development of new products and services”.

Beyond Transparency coverI’ve been reading a Beyond Transparency: Open Data and the Future of Civic Innovation, a collection of essays by twenty three essays by leading Open Data practitioners. The book is open too – available for free download as well as in physical form if you want a copy to scribble over. While Boston’s Mayor Menino committed in January 2012 to overhauling the city’s school assignment policy (which meant that a dozen children on a street would most likely attend a dozen different schools), it took the algorithms of an MIT doctoral student Peng Shi to use the publicly available data to propose a workable alternative, that was voted into policy in March 2013, and will be used from the end of 2013.

As Chief Data and Information Officer for Chicago, Brett Goldstein provided “raw data in machine-readable formats” – APIs – and “purposely tried to avoid getting into the app development business” leaving individuals and third parties to innovate the exploitation of the city’s data. Goldstein was aware of the “strong institutional fear of open data” and the “less than pleasant … dynamic between government, the press, and the open government community”. But he overcame this by building good relationships with those who wanted to use the data and avoided early teething problems becoming the story.

Chicago journalist Elliott Ramos – described as a ‘data reporter’ – recalls Goldstein’s staff “attending hack nights and responding to emails or Tweets faster than most city employees I’ve ever seen”.

It was downright unsettling to be talking with city officials, saying it would make reporters’ lives easier if we had a particular dataset regularly, then having them respond with, “Let’s see what we can do to get you that.” My imagination internally cuts away to Star Wars’ Admiral Ackbar screaming, “It’s a trap!’

Emer Coleman describes the London City Hall’s Datastore efforts:

We accepted that the big challenge for public service reform was not just to make public services more efficient and reliable—like next … but to make them communal and collective, which means inviting and encouraging citizens to participate. To us, open data seemed a vital component of that invitation to participation.

Fundamentally, it’s about a change of culture:

The “culture” of open civic data is the reframing of data from a government resource to a publicly owned asset to which every citizen has a right. (Eric Gordon & Jessica Baldwin-Philippi)

Louisville Economic Growth and Innovation KPIsI’ve blogged before about Louisville’s use of data to boost accountability and transparency as well as improving local government efficiency though the early exposure of KPIs in local government departments and tracking improvement plans to address opportunities for improvement. Oh, and putting all departmental spending and salaries/overtime online. Theresa Reno-Weber and Beth Niblock describe it in their chapter.

The book’s chapters are littered with examples of small- and large-scale exploitation of data opened up by cities and states in the US and UK. There’s also discussion of the economic value generates through the availability of data.

Open Data may also be seen as a building block to more Open Government. John Bracken at the Knight Foundation drew out the five themes “that captured the open government zeitgeist” from 860 submissions to their funding competition:

  • Increasing citizens’ direct participation in policymaking
  • Strengthening policies for data transparency
  • Making sense out of multiple datasets
  • Understanding government spending and campaign contributions
  • Making better use of public spaces and vacant land

Many of these make sense in – or can be adapted to – Northern Ireland too.

Mark Headd reckons that public transit/transport is one of the “clearest example of how open government data can be used to encourage the development of useful new applications”. Standards have built up and been shared across cities and regions. While over in Boston last September, there were ten or more different iOS apps available to plan routes on the MBTA trams and trains. MBTA’s role was not to write or approve the apps. Instead, it concentrated on running trains and providing the scheduling and live positioning data. The market – and individual preference – would decide on the best solutions.

Code for America together with city leaders (ie, elected mayors and appointed CIOs) have been the enablers to opening up data in the US. Only later – after success in Chicago and beyond – did it become an Obama administration initiative too.

Food for thought for local politicians and civil servants as they think through how to enact the NI Innovation Strategy and perhaps bravely go beyond the minimum required and embrace open data more thoroughly. Food for thought too for the Environment Minister and his department’s scrutinising committee as the Local Government Bill is examined and discussed.

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  • mjh


    “Could Northern Ireland embrace open data?”

    Well the voters won’t until someone explains what’s in it for them. What difference could it make to their lives or to that of their family members?

  • What difference would it make?

    Commuters and people just wanting to take public transport would have a choice of websites and apps from which to make decisions about timetabling and routes … a choice backed by a market which is more likely to be responsible to user feedback and more likely to innovate to offer the best, slickest, most liked way of planning than a transport operator-provided monopoly solution.

    A range of statistics from the health service and from education would be available – allowing people to make choices – you can debate whether any more informed or not – rather than relying on simple league tables.

    Businesses would be able to access postcodes and plan how to best serve different areas without having to pay large sums to licence the data that describes how we organise streets and roads and houses.

    Opening up data expands the number of brains that might have a eureka moment and figure out a better policy, or a better approach, or spot a wasted million or two.

    And where pubic services are truly improving, people could take a justified pride in those services and the people delivering them.

  • Seamuscamp

    I use the Traveline website for bus and train timetables and journey planning here in England. It works well enough here and seems to work for NI. In what way is public transport data currently “closed”? If the data is accurate and accessable, why is choice important?

    The notion that a plethora of statistics would allow people to choose schools and hospitals and medical practices is unreal. The existing league tables, for example, are not very relevant to choice – though very relevant to raising standards.