Getting data sets from inside government, semi-State and local bodies out into the public has been a significant part of IBM's Smarter Cities initiative in Dublin. Of course, IBM didn't think up this idea, nor is the company the main reason that an increasing array of data is now offered for public use, frequently at no charge, to be incorporated into apps and services and other uses.
IBM’s involvement on such a large scale (Dublin is one of its set of global Smarter Cities, in which the company does a wide array of research, much of it collaborative, on the infrastructure and organisation of the city) has definitely oiled the gears of the open-data movement here.
The idea behind open data internationally, is that government bodies, local authorities and other public organisations harbour vast amounts of data, generally gathered at public expense. Where there are no privacy or business sensitivity concerns around such data sets, making them available to the public allows citizens and businesses to do creative, useful things with that data, often things that the data-producing organisations do not have the time to do.
President Obama recently announced a national open data policy for the US. The EU was there quite a bit earlier. It has had a general policy to release data for a couple of years with member states, encouraged to make as much data available as possible to citizens, ideally at no charge.
The Government here has a policy that all government bodies should release at least some data for a three-year period. Each must make a list of its data holdings as part of this initiative.
In Dublin, Fingal County Council has led in supporting open-data initiatives. Fingal was the first public body to publish data sets in 2010 and it set up Ireland's first open data-website, data.fingal.ie, where it offers regularly updated data sets.
Fingal also participates with three other Dublin councils, NUI Maynooth and IBM to make a broad range of data sets available through dublinked.ie, one of IBM's Smarter Cities projects.
Challenges and rewards
Fingal's head of IT, Dominic Byrne, is infectiously enthusiastic on the subject.
On a panel last week at IBM’s Dublin campus, as part of a full day of discussion on the Smarter Cities initiative, he talked about some of the challenges and rewards of making data openly available.
Releasing data sets and collaborating with the public and businesses is one way the public sector can solve problems and improve services, he notes. At the same time, public bodies can have a difficult time determining what data is appropriate to release, where to collaborate with other authorities and how to involve citizens. Old computer systems can often make it difficult to gather and release data sets. “You can’t just turn on a tap and let the data flow,” he says.
The rewards can be great, though, providing potential employment, new companies and useful services. The EU has estimated that €27bn worth of potential value is held in member states’ data sets.
Byrne noted some of the apps that have come from the Dublinked project: Park Ya (Parkya. com), which helps people find and pay for city parking, and Buildingeye. com, a site that is gradually making it possible to do planning permission searches across the various councils, so that a person need not go to each individual council site.
A successful open-data ecosystem, however, depends on organisations releasing useful sets, whether they charge for them and, if they do, how much.
Brendan O'Brien, head of technical services for Dublin City Council, who was also on the IBM panel, notes that many organisations – the bus companies, Luas, Irish Rail – have been proactive in releasing real-time data, useful for timetable apps etc. "This is a real example of the collaborative approach in the public sector."
Others are more reticent, notes Byrne. “The Ordnance Survey is an issue, but they have the initiative to be self-funding.”
The body has released some data to Dublinked for research purposes only, but there is much that Byrne would like to see openly available, such as the administrative boundaries for local election areas.
As long as the Irish Ordnance Survey is tasked with funding itself, not the taxpayer, and is not specifically charged with releasing at least some designated data sets to the public, nothing is likely to change. As survey data is some of the most useful for beneficial apps, it is an area the Government needs to re-examine.