For the past decade there has been an increased momentum towards improved accessibility to public sector information. A strategy detailing the plans for Northern Ireland’s open data initiative is the next step.
Francis Maude, in his previous capacity as Minister for the Cabinet Office, described open data as “the new raw material of the 21st century”. Open data are made freely available for public access, use and distribution.
At the 2013 G8 summit in Fermanagh, the UK and other members agreed to an Open Data Charter which set out a five-point action plan. However, Northern Ireland is not included in the UK national action plan and, as such, an alternative set of principles and framework have been developed in order to deliver open data from the local public sector.
The new strategy is aimed at establishing and developing an ‘open data ecosystem’ whereby public sector data are publicly published by default. This would mean that the publishing of data would become part of everyday practice. However, there will be limitations and exceptions for personal details, security, commercial, intellectual property rights, and information of environmental importance.
Numerous anticipated benefits include the promotion of increased trust and participation from citizens, enhanced innovation, and greater efficiencies and savings in administrative costs from responding to freedom of information requests.
All proposed objectives for the first year of the strategy are contained within an attached roadmap. These aim to establish governance structures, create a centralised platform to deliver open data via NIDirect, regulate standards and publishing formats, prioritise and publish high value datasets, and develop and implement a stakeholder engagement plan.
Introduced by former Minister of Finance and Personnel Simon Hamilton, the process is driven by desire to improve accountability, increase choice and improvements in public services, and inspire innovation and enterprise. The Open Data Challenge, backed up by financial prizes for added incentive, cultivates innovative projects capable of capitalising on the introduction of open data.
Data collated by the Department for Regional Development can be utilised to explore traffic and public transport trends which in turn can be exploited to help road and public transport users. The data, provided in their rawest form, will be available to copy, adapt, publish and collate alongside other statistics and information in order to produce new products such as mobile applications.
The strategy details a number of examples of successful innovative projects facilitated by open data initiatives. When Transport for London released all live information about transport systems in the region, a range of externally developed apps emerged which enabled commuters to determine the most efficient routes and when the next mode of public transport will arrive. Likewise, open data extracted from national crime registers, police data and insurance records (obtained through freedom of information requests) have been exploited to establish a website (https://checkthatbike.co.uk/) which enables people buying second-hand bicycles to check the frame numbers and determine if they have been stolen.
Nine open data principles are set out to ensure adherence to standards, the flow of feedback and transparency around the reasons for withholding certain segments of data.
The open data platform will be accessible through NIDirect in order to provide a single point of access for public sector information. This includes signposting people to the data they require.
The use of good metadata to ensure the usability of the data, even if they are imperfect. Adherence to a high standard of metadata can enable interoperability with the central metadata catalogue on the open data platform.
All data published on the open data portal will be at level three or above on the five-star deployment scale. While the end goal will be level five, the strategy recognises that this could take a number of years to achieve.
The ability to publish open data will be embedded within all public sector contracts and procurements. This will ensure that public sector intellectual property stays within the public sector rather than with third party suppliers.
An open government licence will be applied to all data published on the open data platform, meaning that users will be free to copy, publish, distribute, adapt and exploit the information commercially as long as the source of the information is appropriately acknowledged.
Data should be published in their rawest possible form with any errors or limitations clearly noted in the metadata. Avenues for feedback will also be opened, enabling data publishers to receive comments and feedback from users, improving data over time.
All datasets published on the open data platform will be mandated to be refreshed according to a schedule outlined in the associated metadata.
There is transparency around reasons for withholding data which cannot be released. This includes citizens’ personal data, data which could compromise national security, public security or defence, third party intellectual property rights, and data which could adversely affect the protection of the environment if disclosed.
All data will be considered for permanent access through an archiving policy and collaboration with the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.
While there are risks associated with release of public sector data, particularly in their use and interpretation, these can be mitigated. For instance, incorrect conclusions may be drawn from imperfect data or deliberate manipulation. However, a clear line of communication between the data provider and the user which details the limitations and errors contained within the data can reduce any risk.
“The implementation of this strategy will help transform current data management practices and create an ‘open by default’ culture within the public sector by developing an ethos that embeds publishing open data as a normal part of data management processes.” Simon Hamilton