Today Minister Brendan Howlin, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform in Ireland, announced the make up of the newly established Open Data Governance Board with responsibility for advising the Irish Government on its national strategy for open data. I’m absolutely delighted that I’ve been asked to chair the board in the company of a group of very able and talented board members.
Since leaving Ireland in 2005 most of my work has been concentrated in the UK and other countries so I very much welcome and am excited about the opportunity to be able to bring home the experience that I’ve gained in the field of open data and innovation. As part of my work setting up The London Datastore when working for the Mayor of London in the GLA, and indeed in my regular work in my own SME TransportAPI, I’ve seen first hand the innovation and economic stimulus that can happen when public bodies make their data open for reuse by third parties. But I’ve also gained lots of experience about the difficulties that public bodies face in dealing with the challenges of data release some of which stems from the nature of risk averse organisations that can struggle with the demands of a digital economy that require an open data national digital infrastructure and their own risk averse structures. This is nothing new. It reflects the difficulties that all bureaucracies have in moving from command and control models to becoming full members of a networked society.
Ireland has already made good strides in its open data journey with the establishment of its open data portal and regionally with the establishment of Dublinlinked and the forerunner of all of them through the work of Dominic Byrne with the establishment of the first Irish local government data portal Open Data Fingal. I take particular pleasure in the existence of the latter given my previous role as Communications Manager for that authority.
But as we look forward it is also worth looking back and my touchstone for open data has always been and remains the three laws of open data as articulated by Canadian open data activist David Eaves.
If it can’t be spidered or indexed, it doesn’t exist
While it would be wrong of me to dictate the direction of travel without the collaboration of my fellow Board Members I would like to flag from the outset that a primary focus for me personally will be to understand how many of the datasets currently released in Ireland meet these conditions. One of the key things that I took from the technology community in London when we asked them what should we do about releasing open data in London was their suggestion to “Go Ugly Early” meaning to release what data sets we could without worrying too much about their quality. At the time they told me “as long as they are not PDF just release and we can fix as we go along”. That was very valuable advice at the time for two important reasons. (a) it allowed the open data movement in London to achieve momentum without too many arguments about formats. (b) it suggested a collaborative way of working note the use of the word “we” i.e. government and civil society (the latter represented by civic activists and hackers) working together. Another way of looking at this is “good enough beats perfect” so I guess what I’m saying here is that one of the ambitions of the Open Data Governance Board will be to ensure that in the first instance what we have is good enough and that we provide the leadership in time to make things perfect for the entrepreneurial community who are the primary users of this data in the first instance.
The second and equally important element of open data is of course accountability and transparency. We live in an era when trust in institutions is low and the release of open public data can be a part of the restoration of that trust. In 1913 Louis Brandeis, then a member of the US Supreme Court, dubbed “the people’s lawyer” because of his work on free legal aid coined the phrase “sunlight is the best disinfectant”. While not all citizens (and I include myself in that) may be able to understand and wrangle with large datasets filled with numbers and statistics the willingness of government to release its data for public scrutiny and debate has to be the cornerstone of any modern democracy.
Ireland is part of a global moment in this regard with initiatives such as Code for All Ireland which was influenced by the excellent work started by Code for America. In our networked world we are lucky to be able to connect over social media to our open government partners worldwide and of course our membership of the Open Government Partnership provides further resources from which we can draw.
I hope that the establishment of the Open Data Governance Board will give new impetus to the open data movement in Ireland and to the emerging players in civil society who have so much to bring to the table. As they say in Ireland “Come One Come All”. I look forward to the lively and innovative discussions ahead and to the wise counsel that will come not just from my fellow Board Members but from those in the open data community interested in how the release of open data can achieve its twin aims of accountability and transparency and the economic stimulus that can contribute to the further economic recovery of the country.