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Open Letter Regarding Open Data in Ireland

- February 17, 2015 in Denis Parfenov, DPER, Events, INKEx, insight, OGP Ireland, Open Data, Open Data Ireland, Open Knowledge Ireland, William Beausang

(Originally published here in response on invitation to meet with Department of Public Expenditure and Reform dated 12 February 2015)

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Dear William -

Thank you for your email. Let’s look….

What we have

There are numerous publicly funded data research institutions.

“…INSIGHT [DERI, CLARITY, CLIQUE, 4C, TRIL]  represent an investment in excess of 150,000,000 over the past 10 years, hosting more than 300 researchers, and collaborating with more than 150 industry partners….””…. to create a healthier, safer, more productive world by empowering a data-driven society to enable better decisions by individuals, communities, business and governments…” (here)

Taking into consideration a generous investment of public and private money into data excellence in Ireland, we should be leading in the open data world, right?

Where we are?

Lets have a quick look where is Ireland positioned in the world of open data:

There is hardly any improvement since 2013.

According to both surveys, the UK is the world leader in open data. Peculiarly, Ireland has  pledged at United Nations Assembly last year  “to share best practice, knowledge and expertise with its Northern Ireland counterparts and assist each other in relation to Open Data.” (here)

It’s good that Ireland has a CKAN-driven data.gov.ie. It’s not good that it’s “alfa” since May 2014 and technically speaking hosts no open data.

Talking open data, practicing open washing 

It was great to see Minister Howlin of D/PER launching an open data initiative in London in 2013. It was very disappointing to see the Department of Communications excluding any open alternatives for one of the most valuable dataset: postcodes (Eircode) were excluded from bidding process by error .

“Open Data Ireland: Best Practice Handbook” (July 2014) compiled by Deirdre Lee, Richard Cyganiak, Stefan Decker states “The current Irish PSI license is not considered an Open License, as it places a number of restrictions on re-use and distribution that go beyond the requirements of attribution and share-alike.” Other than your consultant’s change of mind on what is or is not “open data” it is not clear what has changed since then re PSI licensing in the last 6 month. ‘Open washing’, is the term for calling open data what is NOT open data (yet).

Even within your own department, the “Reform Unit” is talking positively about theoretical aspects of open data. When it comes to practice, another unit within your department, is supporting The Irish Nonprofits Project Limited (formerly  INKEx), an organisation which receives public funds to build a privately-held database with an intention to sell it back to the state, relaunched.

Open data and community

I clearly recall the moment when in February 2012, after following ‘open data’ across the world, I came across ‘A Briefing paper’ (here), which was co-authored by D/PER’s current Open Data consultant, Deirdre Lee, with other industry representatives. What struck me then was that, unlike any other open data policy document, the Irish one didn’t contain a single mention of the social benefits of open data for civil society.

Taking this into consideration we (Open Knowledge Ireland) undertook a challenge to progress open data in Ireland by catalyzing interest around it. As you remember, in September 2012, Oireachtas cut the XML feed to kildarestreet.com, the biggest open government data publisher in Ireland. The open data community started to organise regular ‘Open Data Ireland’ meetups.

The idea of of open data meetups was to generate demand for open data through education and collaboration between data holders and data users (under assumption that passion is a stronger motivator than profit). All our events were organised in the evening time or at weekends, in order to accommodate enthusiasts and increase a pool of people who knows more about open data and participate in it’s co-creation.

Prior to our workshop meetup on November 17th, D/PER’s consultant tweeted “It’d be good to discuss how to facilitate broad engagement in #opendataIRL” here.  However the time and date chosen by the consultant is aimed at accommodating those who “work with data”.

We can assume that that the biggest publisher of open data, John Handelaar, based in Cork and Open Street Maps lead in Ireland Dave Corley, based in Galway, do not belong to the consultant’s target group.

The participants of the November 17  workshop discussed 5 projects, which can be turned into real life Irish examples of open data being put in use and we set up a project log here.

However at the follow up meeting with you in D/PER offices, we were informed that the department has a budget for 2015 only for an appointed “consultant”, Deirdre Lee from Derilinx and Deirdre Lee from INSIGHT.

Evidently, D/PER has generous resources for Irish Nonprofits Project Limited / INKEx also…

Taking into consideration that there is a paid “consultant” in place and the fact that none of independent groups cannot compete in tendering processes with quangos which have hundreds of publicly funded researchers at their disposal, our group will not be organising any public engagements in Ireland as long as there is a publicly sponsored consultant.  This is the only logical course.

To summarise, there is still no appreciating for the role of the civic groups in progressing open data in Ireland. There is contradiction between the government’s public commitments and government’s actions.

Thank you for your invitation to meet, but I don’t see any point to participate in creation of an illusion of openness in Ireland.

Best, Denis  

DÁIL QUESTIONS addressed to the Minister Brendan Howlin re INKEx

- February 13, 2015 in Dail, DPER, Howlin, INKEx, open charity data, Open Data Ireland

QUESTION NOS:  294,295,296
DÁIL QUESTIONS addressed to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform (Deputy Brendan Howlin)
by Deputy Stephen S. Donnelly,Stephen S. Donnelly,Stephen S. Donnelly
for WRITTEN ANSWER on 03/02/2015  
* To ask the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the way and the reason the decision to revive Irish Nonprofits Knowledge Exchange was made; if alternative approaches were considered; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
- Stephen S. Donnelly T.D.
For WRITTEN answer on Tuesday, 3 February, 2015. * To ask the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the budget or funding that has been allocated for Irish Nonprofits Knowledge Exchange; if there was a tendering process; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
- Stephen S. Donnelly T.D.
For WRITTEN answer on Tuesday, 3 February, 2015. * To ask the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform the objectives that have been set for Irish Nonprofits Knowledge Exchange; the timeframe; the way its performance will be measured; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
- Stephen S. Donnelly T.D.
For WRITTEN answer on Tuesday, 3 February, 2015.  
REPLY. There are in excess of 12,000 non-profit entities, which receive more than €4.4 billion annually in government funding. In line with the Public Sector Reform Plan 2014   2016 my Department is progressing solutions to design and deliver complete data on the funding received by the not-for-profit sector. The establishment of such an evidence base will assist Government in evaluating and delivering a higher quality impact assessment of public spending. The Irish Nonprofits Project Limited (formerly INKEx) previously worked on the development of a single repository of financial, governance and other relevant data on the not-for-profit sector. This project was designed to significantly enhance the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of Government support and interaction with the non-profit sector. It was part-funded through significant State investment. However funding was withdrawn due to economic constraints and the project was put into abeyance. The Irish Nonprofits Project Limited (formerly INKEx) have secured philanthropic funding toward the re-establishment of this project and I have committed to providing match funding. My Department are engaged in discussions with the Irish Nonprofits and philanthropic organisations on the practicalities and structures involved in re-establishing this project. Any investment will build on the earlier investment and seek to realise the value of the State’s previous funding of this project. This is in keeping with the Government’s aim to develop alternative models of delivery and to provide for greater public accountability and transparency in Government grant-making and its support of the non-profit sector.   https://www.kildarestreet.com/wrans/?id=2015-02-03a.431&s=INKEx#g435.r

Open Data Ireland in practice: Let the Sun Shine on Charity Transparency?

- January 27, 2015 in charity financial data, DPER, INKEx, OKFN Ireland, open charity data, Open Data Ireland, Open Knowledge Ireland

In May 2013 Open Knowledge Ireland asked:  “Can data help Irish charities to win back the trust lost in recent scandals?”

Driven by this question and inspired by the successful implementation of  http://www.charitynavigator.org/ in the US, Open Knowledge Ireland (OK Ireland) undertook a challenge to help Irish citizens and donors compare charities using a similar driven-by-data platform.

Initial research revealed that there was little or no relevant, publicly accessible data available in Ireland in useful for 21st century machine-readable format. OK Ireland and partners therefore needed to develop a methodology and a reporting standard to compile and construct an open dataset based on the audited annual reports of Irish charities.  We derived this standard from the UK’s Statement of Recommended Practice, Accounting and Reporting by Charities (SORP).

On a sunny Saturday morning on July 26th in 2014, qualified and engaged volunteers from civil society and the charities sector gathered to cap the exploratory phase of our project by crowdsourcing essential data and building a prototype of the data-driven platform.

In the course of our research and implementation, we looked at the INKEx model and its legacy with great interest. Between 2007 – 2012, this organisation sought to key in a dataset to a proprietary database and make extracts of this data publicly available through a “free website” with the purpose of creating “a public good for the benefit of civil society, not to generate profit” (See Sara Burke’s postmortem report on INKEx, commissioned by INKEx here, p.5). Without noting any irony this endevour has been presented to the public as an “open data project”.

According to public records €1.1 million of public money was invested in INKEx between 2009 and 2011, public funding was withdrawn in 2012 and INKEx ceased trading in 2013. However, the fruits of its endeavours and the data it collected are still not publicly available – rendering it difficult to judge whether it delivered on any of its objectives. (See case study, ibid, here.)

What was the return on this investment to the Irish taxpayer?

According to recent reports, INKEx has been contracted by D/PER for a second phase.

OK Ireland and the strategic partners involved in Open Charity Data project and in generating SORP v.2 are of the opinion that reviving INKEx is not a wise strategic decision for the following reasons:

  • The case study mentioned above, (ibid, p14) reported that there was “little understanding” as to how INKEx’s model could have cost €1-1.3 million per year (publicly and privately raised) on an ongoing basis. (ibid, p14). This cost is scarcely justifiable in 2014.
  • Smart and prudent public funding remains an issue. What was questioned as being of limited value then remains bad value now.  Building a closed service with inward focussed employees rather than harnessing public value, as was done in 2010 and 2012 is not progressive thinking. Public opposition to this practice is clearly evident in the example of Irish Water – high wage bills for publicly-funded organisations. The charity sector can do without another stick to beat it.
  • INKEx’s business plan was to own the data, commercially tendering to provide it to the newly-legislated Charity Registry on one hand, while on the other hand receiving public grants and philanthropy for the data’s collection and curation.  Why should this company receive funds to build a privately-held asset which is then sold back to the state?  (See Sara Burke report pp14).

In Open Knowledge’s view, charity data should not be owned and controlled by one company,  but by the Irish people and should be readily available to the public and the government at no charge, once collated.

Open Knowledge’s approach to helping charities share their financial data contrasts with the stated intentions and methodologies of INKEx. We would provide a platform for charities to share their data openly and publicly in a self-sustainable fashion. The outcome would be owned by the people of Ireland under an open licence (CC), making the relevant information available for anyone to use, reuse and share, in the spirit of Open Data, a vital 21st century movement in which the D/PER / Irish government has already invested ideologically and publicly.

More importantly, OK Ireland’s proposal is to gain broad engagement and participation by civil society in serving itself and its needs rather than vesting this responsibility in a private company. Our approach embraces a forward thinking practice that recognises the gain both financially and politically by harnessing participation, sharing the burden and collectively sharing the benefits.This shifts from a clientist model to a collectivist approach, which has proven to lead to socially-driven solutions to society’s needs through civil engagement across all stages of design, implementation and delivery.

Our project has been frequently shared with D/PER’s Reform Unit (slide deck). It was also presented to the newly appointed charity regulator (2-page case study .pdf). It has been clearly indicated that the project can be delivered at the fraction of cost of deploying a dedicated staff, by providing a value proposition for participants in serving their own needs (2-page appeal to charities .pdf). Instead of setting up a Quango, government could mandate a reporting format for charities, and make returns in this format a proviso for state grants. (HSE does exactly this for some NGO sectors). Once the data is in a standard format, there is no need for keying in this information manually.

D/PER’s Reform Unit, which has a task to make open data a reality in Ireland, was supportive with organising a workshop and we are very grateful for their support in beginning the process of changing the way in which we govern ourselves in Ireland. Open Data holds great promise. A promise embraced by one sector within D/PER, but this seems contrary to another unit minding INKEx within D/PER and holding fast to an antiquated approach to serving society without civil engagement.

There seems to be a contradiction in practise between the state declaring an understanding of the benefits of open data, while investing in old-school closed projects to compile proprietary datasets for commercial outcome.

Data is useful when it makes a difference by enhancing transparency and enabling evidence-based decisions. The loss of trust in Irish charities is estimated to have reduced donations by 5% in a €2 billion market. This equates to €100m every year being diverted from former charity recipients. Our Open Charity Data project has the built-in capacity to empower citizens and donors and win back their trust, thus potentially saving lives and boosting the quality of life standards for people in need.