Open Data - an ongoing revolution

15 Sep 2014 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 29 Oct 2014

Open Data Graphic
Open Data Graphic, ScopeNI

The influence of open data is increasingly driving policy - and improving enterprise. So, what is it, and how can it help the third sector?

The world is becoming data driven. Access to information, and the ability to dissect vast swathes of it, are increasing all the time - leading to ever more analytical approaches to all sorts of problems. Those who do not adapt will fail, surpassed by competitors who innovate.

The open data movement is of growing importance to all businesses and social enterprises. Governments are driving the reforms so those who rely on central information – such as many community and voluntary organisations – will be in the vanguard.

So, what is open data, and how can it help?

By definition, it is information that can be freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and share alike.

However that is not the clearest starting point. Instead the best place to begin is at the end, with what has already been achieved.


Even though open data is its infancy there are already specific examples of how useful it can be.

Potential savings of £200m were identified across health trusts in England after data the NHS had made freely available was analysed by a third party – developers based at the Open Data Institute.

The ODI found there was negligible difference in outcomes between non-branded and branded statins and, because of the large price discrepancy between the two treatments, a simple readjustment showed how to make an enormous saving.

Transport for London (TfL), the agency responsible for the city’s bus and underground networks, guarded their data for many years until demand for better access from commuters became too great to ignore.

TfL initially tried to develop suitable information hubs itself but struggled with a service far removed from its core business. By opening its data, TfL was able to benefit from market forces.

Numerous modern tech developers across London saw the potential for travel apps and, in short time, commuters were able to choose between quality services that allow them access to constantly-updating travel news.

In the past year Translink has been criticised for not offering the same opportunities and the TfL example shows clearly one template for how community and voluntary organisations can capitalise on this growing area, whether in transport or other areas like health and justice.

Northern Ireland

Openness will vastly increase the amount of information available – whether its origin is central government, or somewhere else – providing opportunities for social enterprises to combine their own expertise with this new data to either fill gaps in services or refine and improve upon existing provision.

Beyond that, increased analysis of information will make them more aware of how they can improve their ongoing services and, most strikingly of all, point to entirely new ways of thinking which could revolutionise workings of any and all companies, not just the third sector.

Stormont has a key role to play and is already making progress. The Assembly Information Management Service (AIMS) is making information from the House on the Hill easier to both access and use.

More importantly, the Executive is already trying to push on local innovation.

DETI and DFP ran an open data competition over the summer, with ministers Arlene Foster and Simon Hamilton presenting a £5,000 award for the best idea for an app using public sector information.

According to the Executive press release, “The competition received over 30 applications covering a wide range of themes from ‘real time’ road gritting information to incentivising blood donation and local community information” – giving just an indication of what is possible.

The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (Nisra) is also making efforts to open its own data, including through its Neighbourhood Information Service (NINIS).

Stephen Gray, Head of Information Management at NICVA, said: “In some respects Nisra would say they are ahead of the game. Northern Ireland is not as well developed as the rest of the UK – where policy coming from the cabinet office has done amazing things with government information.

“However, they are making efforts, and those of us who believe in the transformative potential of open data think it is moving in the right direction.

“Nisra is an arm of DFP and Simon Hamilton has shown already that he is tuned in to the idea of and potential for open data. I think he really gets it.”

Funding for the third sector

Open data might seem like an imposing idea at first but, happily for the third sector, NICVA recently received £500,000 funding from the BIG Lottery Fund to improve local use of information to better understand, and therefore better serve, communities.

The money will be put into a partnership with The Detail, the NI investigative news and analysis website and which makes extensive use of open data.

This will involve training and events aimed at first “de-mystifying” open data, then exploring how it can be used for huge benefits, and the establishment of a network of open-data operators among local community and voluntary organisations.

NICVA members, and others in the sector, will work with the Detail to analyse and present information affecting local people in areas including education, health and justice.

Ultimately NICVA will develop a publicly-accessible online data store, holding a range of information useful to social enterprises.

The model followed by The Detail is “multi-layered”, according to deputy editor Kathryn Torney, and allows for snapshots to be taken as well as big-picture analysis, and also examinations at every level of detail in between.

Its website has a dedicated section for data stories, with one recent example looking at ambulance response times in Northern Ireland – showing overall waiting times are rising, as well as providing a breakdown of different types of call, by complaint, and a heat map of Northern Ireland showing response times by location.

Kathryn says the benefits of data analysis will extend in an analogous way to any enterprise, not just journalism - which could be a huge boon to the third sector.

She said: “I think the public now expects access to data on issues that are important, whether that’s from government organisations or others. It’s something that no longer can be or should be kept hidden.

“Becoming competent with the use of data is just a matter of devoting some time to it. If you can use an Excel spreadsheet then you’ve pretty much got the tools needed to analyse information.

“We find it incredibly useful, and we are always on the lookout for further ideas or further information that can be analysed – we welcome anyone coming to us, saying they might have or know of an area of interest.”

No going back

The World Wide Web has been in common usage for about two decades, rapidly increasing people’s and society’s ability to transmit information from one place to another.

At the same time, technological capability continues to grow exponentially, providing the tools to handle and manipulate ever-larger data.

Taken together, we have the ability to communicate more things more quickly, at a growing rate.

The natural next step is to ask how we can use all this intelligently and to our advantage – and open data technology is helping provide answers to this question.

The movement is global; the G8 nations have committed to move towards open central data, leading to sites like as in the US and, the recent information exchange revamp out of Westminster.

There is even a G8 Open Data Charter, which begins: “The world is witnessing the growth of a global movement facilitated by technology and social media and fuelled by information – one that contains enormous potential to create more accountable, efficient, responsive, and effective governments and businesses, and to spur economic growth. Open data sit at the heart of this global movement.”

Northern Ireland is not quite at the forefront of open data, but the genie is out of the bottle, and change is happening right now.

This is almost certainly for the better – but all of us will have to adapt.

The opinions, views or comments in this article do not necessarily reflect any views or policies of NICVA.

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