Open Data: What does it really mean for us?

Written by Marguerite Clarke, Account Manager at Sopra Steria

On Friday March 27th delegates from across Northern Ireland gathered in Belfast to participate in Digital Leaders Northern Ireland’s second Salon, to discuss Open Data and what it means for Northern Ireland.  Open Data is very topical in Northern Ireland as in February 2015 DFP Minister Simon Hamilton unveiled an Open Data Strategy.  This strategy contains the framework and principles by which the government aims to build capacity for delivering Open Data.

The Salon welcomed a good cross-section of attendees from across central government and the private sector, all enthusiastic about the topic and ready for a debate.

The first lead discussant was ‎Trevor Steenson, Digital Transformation Programme Director at DFPNI.  Trevor is passionate about the Digital transformation of government services.  He believes that opening up public sector data is the right thing to do in terms of transparency, accountability, efficiency and in driving economic growth through the innovative use of data.  He discussed how ‘Open by Default’ requires strong leadership in government to help drive a culture change to overcome the obstacles that have prevented government bodies from either implementing an Open Data strategy or ensuring its sustainability.

This sparked debate from the floor, we heard that governance is a barrier that needs to be overcome and an example of this in practice is when civil servants are reluctant to share data given they are open to scrutiny if they share poor quality data.  It was agreed Open by Default will result in improvements to the quality of government data.  Open Data can also increase government efficiency.  The Dutch Ministry of Education has published all of their education-related data online for re-use.   Since then, the number of questions they receive has dropped; reducing work-load and costs, and the remaining questions are now also easier for civil servants to answer because it is clear where the relevant data can be found.

The discussion moved on to procurement of IT systems and Open Data.  Previous public sector procurements have created barriers to Open Data and therefore processes need to be reformed to encourage Open Data.   In Northern Ireland, government procurement can assist to help Open Data become widespread across Northern Ireland by thinking about Open Data requirements when they are procuring IT systems.

Trevor is focused and passionate about making the Open Data strategy sustainable.  The government will have to demonstrate that it has led to efficiencies in service delivery, helped stimulate innovation and contributed to improving the economy.

The second lead discussant was Phil Young, an Open Data specialist from Sopra Steria.  Phil has helped his customers in Scotland with Open Data strategy development and recently developed a Point of View paper on Open Data delivery with local government.

His experience has shown that Open Data is an important resource that can be utilised by citizens, local communities and businesses in innovative and unexpected ways to deliver significant social and economic benefits.  Phil believes that opening up datasets appropriately favours transparency and can empower citizens and drive innovation.  For example, developers in several UK cities have used Open Data to map and chart local cycle accidents, providing cyclists with information to help them avoid potentially dangerous roads, and assisting local authorities to design safer highways.

In Scotland Phil sees the public sector and private sector working together on Open Data.  It was suggested from the floor that a hackathon day for Northern Ireland data would be a great way to get industry and the government working more on Open Data.   If a popular data set such as Geospatial was made available the data could be used by people to do new things that have not been done before which will help with innovation across public and private sectors and to encourage new commercial opportunities.  In Phil’s experience, hackathons, prizes and prototypes have been proven to work well within communities.

The general view point was that for the potential to be seized, data needs to be unlocked especially public data.  When the government open and share public data this will allow for better decision making internally which in turn will benefit the citizen.

The Salon closed with final thoughts from our lead discussants.  The main issues voiced were:

  • If data is made open, it can have huge potential benefits.
  • Government and Industry need to get involved to help drive the strategy to achieve successful outcomes.
  • In delivering the Open Data Strategy the NI government will face the same challenges that their counterparts across the world face and we have an opportunity to draw on the learning experiences especially those who have successfully implemented Open Data.


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