Irish Government called on to open up its data to citizens

29 Apr 2011

The Irish Government is being called upon to open up all data to citizens and enterprising software developers in a move that could drive a raft of new services to citizens, eradicate logjams and lead to greater accountability.

By embracing open data principles, open source technology and cloud computing, it is envisaged Ireland could follow in the steps of the US Government and European nations like Norway that have embraced open data principles to great success.

According to the CEO of the Irish Internet Association, Joan Mulvihill, wind and wave energy are considered great but untapped natural resources, but what of data, the nation’s untapped non-natural resources?

“In an information age, where knowledge is power and where Ireland is the arguably the European HQ of all things digital, why are we not leading the way in open data?”

She pointed to the Obama administration in the US, which has enabled citizen developers by opening up data.

Chris Vein, deputy US chief technology officer, said: “Whether you call them geeks or techies, some of the greatest innovations in government have been the result of citizen developers who simply want to do their part to make our government work better. From the Department of Health and Human Services’ Community Data Health Initiative to ‘Transportation Camps’ – un-meetings aimed at solving transportation problems – throughout the United States, citizens are using their talents to help make government data that are simply lying around actually work for the American people.

“By adopting an open data policy, the government have the opportunity to directly benefit from the technical expertise of its own people by allowing its able developer community access to enormous data sets that lie largely unscrutinised and unused. Unlocking these data mines and allowing those skilled in eeking out the nuggets, polishing the data and carving elegant solutions to public services will benefit everyone – citizens, governments, entrepreneurs.”

How open data will help Ireland

Mulvihill, who will be dedicating half of this year’s annual IIA Conference at the Aviva Stadium on 12 May to the subject of open data for developers, said the benefits to citizens could be enormous, eradicating the frustration of waiting for civil servants and county councillors to give them answers to what’s happening on their streets and in their towns.

“Think of how much more efficient things would be if data was opened up for developers to create innovative apps and programs that would give citizens the answers they need. I suspect that fear is the only thing holding this back. There is a fear of accountability in these institutions driven by the idea that people will use the information to drive down the powers that be. The reality couldn’t be more different. People are more frustrated by lies and not knowing the truth.

“This Government has a real opportunity to say ‘we’re not afraid and we stand over our performance.’ By opening up data, people would understand the realities of getting things done and it would help manage their expectations.”

She pointed to pioneering projects such as ‘Fix My Street’, an app being developed by the Local Government Computer Services Board (LGCSB) that allows citizens in South County Dublin take a photo of potholes and send them into the County Council, urging action.

“Someone would then be accountable for getting it fixed and by opening up data the concerned citizen would know what’s happening and what is being done about it. It’s that simple and represents major opportunities for savings, as well as business opportunities for software developers to create compelling products. Some of these products might end up being exported to other countries and governments.”

Mulvihill acknowledged that development talent is a scarce resource right now in any country but software developers could create meaningful and lasting business models that go beyond attending hackatons.

Attending the open data event will be members of the public service so it represents a real opportunity to convince them about the value of opening up data to the public.

“People like Tim Willoughby of the LGCSB are flying the flag for open data and the benefits it can deliver and are interested in the opportunity of working with young, bright, innovative developers who can help the State deliver better services for citizens.

“At present however, the rules around data are prohibiting these opportunities. National data represents a huge untapped non-natural resource that we should be embracing. The key is Government trusting their own citizens and supporting enterprising developers who in turn could create jobs and open up exciting new export markets for Irish-made technology.”

A glimpse of what was possible was offered earlier this year at the IIA’s Cloud Computing event, where Torstein Harildstad, CEO of Software Innovation and a former head of technology at publishing giant Conde Nast, described how Norway opened up its data to its citizens.

Harildstad’s company is indigenous to Norway but has grown to more than 300 people in Sweden and India also and is almost a tantalising glimpse of what should and could be possible for Irish software companies if we had a public sector ready to invest in the cloud. The company has a strong foothold in the public-sector market and is now moving into the private sector, unlike its Irish counterparts who have to go global and win private-sector business overseas without even a sniff of business from the Irish Government.

“We are not selling the cloud to public-sector organisations, we are selling business value,” he explained, as he outlined how cloud computing is enabling very real transparency for the public, for business and ultimately for leaders in public-sector organisations by publishing and providing open access to crucial documentation and correspondence.

Mulvihill says open data is a logical step but bad PR, miscommunication and misconceptions have created a fear among policy makers and civil servants that data miners are, in fact, a rebel group of underworld hackers, hell bent on using data to expose the inadequacies and yikes ‘corruption’ of our current system.

“There is not enough engagement between public bodies and the grassroots of the internet industry. In a role where I sit squarely between the two I have a rare vantage point. I can see this case from both sides to bring these groups together, facilitating a more constructive and open conversation where each can present their side and reconcile them to a plan for government that will benefit everyone. 

“Now is the time to be taking a chance on ourselves, trusting our own people to do what is best for the society in which are all participants. The internet industry in Ireland has come of age, it’s time we were trusted with a set of keys!”

Below: Irish Internet Association CEO Joan Mulvihill

Joan Mulvihill

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years