Government starting to open its eyes on transparency

Along with countries such as China and Belarus, the Republic has so far failed to sign up to the Open Government Partnership

If the Government signs up to the Open Government Partnership , it should start publishing data in machine-readable formats, alongside PDFs and search interfaces. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

If the Government signs up to the Open Government Partnership , it should start publishing data in machine-readable formats, alongside PDFs and search interfaces. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien


Knowledge is power and as transparency rises on the list of Government priorities, so too does the amount of related information in the public domain.

The drive to publish more about how taxes are spent and decisions are made is seen as integral to more accountable governance. One group advocating this is the Open Government Partnership (OGP), which has 58 signatory countries.

To date the Republic, along with nations such as China and Belarus, has failed to join the OGP, although the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform says it is being considered by the Government.

So what is the base case for publishing more data? According to the OGP, large datasets can give a snapshot of how our society lives, outline vital information for public bodies to help them to deliver more effective services, make government more accountable and help enrich civil society. And, of course, we have paid for the collection of the information through our taxes.

More data does not necessarily mean greater transparency, as its value lies in how accessible, or open, it is. Open data should be publicly available, accessible and free to use, reuse and republish with attribution.

Data releases that are difficult to access and compare reduce the uses and value of the information. In the Republic large amounts of public data are published in PDF or Microsoft Word formats, neither of which are machine-readable, meaning they must be changed into another format before they can be thoroughly analysed.

Information published behind a search interface also restricts the use of the data. While it may be useful for someone who knows exactly what they are looking for, it limits access to the information.

Public authorities often have data in machine-readable formats, as they need to crunch the numbers to make sense of the information. If the Government signs up to the OGP, it should start publishing the data in these formats, alongside PDFs and search interfaces.

Big data is one of the key areas of the Government’s job growth plans. While most of the attention on the subject has been in relation to employment, a number of councils have been making efforts to publish and use their information more transparently.

In 2010 Fingal County Council became the first public agency in the State to launch an open-data website and publish some of its data sets in an accessible format. Fingal County Council assistant head of information technology Dominic Byrne was instrumental in setting up the website. He says there is still nervousness about making Government information open.

“You do have this fear of will the data be misused or is it of good enough quality, but all of these issues can be addressed and, regardless, all of this information is available under freedom of information anyway.”

Byrne says the need to publish the data in a transparent way is gaining recognition in his organisation. “We’ve adopted the approach of rather than asking, ‘why do you want this data?’, we say, ‘why wouldn’t we release this data?’”

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