8 April, 2016

At their invitation, Benefacts met with the members of the Open Data Governance Board on 4th April. The meeting went on for nearly an hour, and didn’t give us half enough time to cover a big agenda that we share with the Board - transparency in government, data-driven decisions, a better-informed public.

“Open data” means data that is publicly available for anyone to use and which is licensed in a way that allows it to be re-used. The common requirement that open data be machine-readable not only means that data is distributed via the Internet in a digitized form, but can also be processed by computers through automation, ensuring both wide dissemination and ease of re-use.

Some public data about civil society organisations in Ireland is available in open data formats, lots more is not. Our presentation explained how we have built a database full of consistently high-quality data about ~20,000 nonprofits in Ireland, and how we plan to help people use it.

We talked about some of the technical processes and challenges that arise when you set out to re-use data in lots of different formats from multiple locations, and why we think it’s important to overcome them.

We don’t often get the opportunity to talk to people with such a high level of knowledge and interest in the business of data – cleaning it, aggregating it, storing and publishing it – and there was a lot to discuss. The people on the Board had questions about our approach to privacy, about the timeliness of our data and the risk of inconsistency, and about the wisdom of re-publishing data rather than providing people with direct access to the source. They also wanted to know about the sustainability of our operation now and into the future, and what were our business values.

We explained that we have studied the privacy impacts of our work, have registered with the Data Protection Commissioner, and believe that our re-use of company information, including the names of nonprofit directors/trustees, is in the public interest. This is despite the fact that – as a nonprofit, non-governmental organisation ourselves – we have neither regulatory powers nor responsibilities of our own.

We discussed the challenges involved in merging data from many sources, and why this is worth doing.

  • Most people have no idea of the full range and extent of civil society action in Ireland.
  • Much of the public data about this sector is not yet available in digital form.
  • Decades of funding, tax reliefs and now regulation of nonprofits by government has resulted in a proliferation of standalone compliance reporting systems. Duplication of effort on this scale is wasteful, and flies in the face of the “file once-only” principle.

So besides cleaning and storing data, Benefacts is determined to put it to work, refining it and making it accessible to anyone who is interested in better decision-making.

For now, while we build the systems to produce a free public website and API, we have the support of government and philanthropies. Like similar initiatives elsewhere, we foresee a future where the value of this data is such that a free public service can continue to be funded by revenues from people who value access to a reliable stream of high quality governance and financial data.

Download a pdf copy of the presentation delivered by Benefacts