Volcanic white terraces

Seismic Shifts: OurRagingPlanet and Open Data

White terraces, Rotomahana by Charles Blomfield (1903). Volcanic terraces in New Zealand. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Late in 2016, the winners of Northern Ireland’s OpenDataNI Education Challenge were announced. At Flax & Teal, an email from the OpenDataNI team flopped into the Inbox saying that my submission, the OurRagingPlanet proposal, been awarded an additional 20,000GBP of funding to develop an educational project, based on open data, to completion in four months. No equity transfer, based on internal requirement writing, retained IP, few stipulations beyond progress reviews, and fundamentally based on open technology. I’d like to thank OpenDataNI for showing this is possible.

Indeed, this is a great opportunity to thank those who worked on it publicly. On a technical level, Martin Naughton (MnTech), Martin Barnes (Introspective Design / Xpand), Keith Howe, Mark Kelso (Glaze Digital), James Gumble (Xpand). Catherine Riddell‘s amazing teaching and IT understanding was crucial to our project. Thanks are due to the many others who worked with us through meetings, informal discussions and focus groups. ODNI provided excellent direct support, driven by Suzanne McLaughlin and Cormac McConaghy – we asked for data we knew we would need, and they went searching for the people who had it, and kept us on track through the process.

Opening it up

Open data and open source have gained greater and greater influence on the Northern Ireland digital economy. DigitalDNA, coming up on June 6 (reminder: early bird price ends Easter Sunday!) has a whole data strand, OWASP’s AppSec Europe conference in the first week of May (the O in OWASP is Open, don’t forget!), certain industry-standard testing software that we will see at TestBash is open (May 18) and the inaugural Northern Ireland Developer Conference theme is, indeed, Open Source. Just to name a few high profile events in the next two months. The Belfast Meetup world is choc full of open source, and open data.

BelTechEdu opened with OpenDataNI showing future drivers of the digital economy where open data fitted in. Along with another competition winning open data project Gaff Game, put together by Rose-Kane Quinn, OurRagingPlanet itself was officially launched, another example of open data and open source taking centre-stage in Belfast.

So, here’s a brief intro to how F&T ended up in the intersection.


OurRagingPlanet screenshot

OurRagingPlanet showing a flood simulation

OurRagingPlanet is web-based tool for teachers to simulate natural disasters in their local area, and for students to explore the hypothetical consequences. This aims to improve understanding of the human impact of natural disasters by providing a familiar context.

On a technical level, OurRagingPlanet is a platform that passes geographical open data to (often time-domain) numerical simulations, and displays the results on OpenStreetMap layers. It does a bit more than that, but we have been careful to limit application assumptions to keep individual components on a balance of simplicity and generality. This makes it re-usable, and modular.

So it struck me, this is Northern Ireland in 2016 – whatever else was going on up the Hill, Flax & Teal was getting paid by the Departments of Finance and Economy to create an open project, where it often felt challenging to do the same in Commission-level projects.

Even if I had successful got investment funding, investors of varying levels of experience would have sat me down and told me what I could and couldn’t do, for my own good (and their 6% shares), and ultimately not provided as good an opportunity as this. Now, I’m not going to say OurRagingPlanet is perfectly polished, it is a work in progress because it is an on-going, growing interest – I took the Challenge as a challenge, to make this project’s value surpass its funding, create something genuinely innovative (in the non-clich├ęd sense) and be ambitious. We built a team to work on it – I’d already internationally framed the concept around my somewhat unusual skillset, so I knew I could chip in on several levels – then we got cracking.

You mean open source, right?

So, for those of you coming from the open source side, computational science side, or otherwise, what is open data? According to the Open Data Institute (who should know):

Open data is data that anyone can access, use or share.

OK, well that’s logical. What’s new about it?

Not surprisingly, the history of open data is linked to open source. It is also influenced by the idea that (at least some) research, and research data, should be freely accessible. In 2007, a meeting in Sebastopol, CA started the ball rolling on what open data means and means for government. Remarkably, one of US President Obama’s first acts two years later was to put open data at the heart of governmental transparency.

As data became available freely, commercial uses started springing up. For instance, domain-specific search engines and rankers, the widely-used Citymapper transport app, and even an app that lets you talk to public fixtures in Bristol. OpenDataNI, since their launch a year-and-a-half ago, have brought in a broad swathe of datasets from tree locations to drug prescription statistics. In an example of how open data works in with local companies, I would highly recommend checking out Analytics Engines’ case study on prescription data.

Data in NI

Screenshot of dataviewer with NI in the middle and a colour map of pointwise height

Dataset from OpenDataNI showing openly-licensed OSNI elevation data

Northern Ireland has a fast growing digital economy and open data is becoming an increasingly important factor in NI. At OpenDataNI’s first birthday event, the excellent turnout of mostly public sector staff filled a conference room at City Hall. Statistics included 5.4m rows of data per year in one single NI dataset, 1000 active users a month and almost 200 separate datasets released from public sector. Not bad for the 12 months of doors open. Many more datasets have been added since.

Big data, in particular, is a growth area within the sector here, and is driven by large data sources; often these are from IoT devices, or online services, but open data has its own widening firehoses. Digital DNA, a well-established industry-wide conference, devotes a full stream to it. The EU-level MIDAS project, project coordinated by Dr Michaela Black at Ulster University, aims to tackle a range of challenges bringing healthcare data from various sources together, open or otherwise. A number of international companies in Belfast, such as insurers Allstate and the burgeoning FinTech sector in the Linen Quarter, deal with huge quantities of data. Those with an interest in big data should make sure they have kopped onto the regular Big Data Breakout events.

The future

So how to move forward from here? Back in Autumn, the first GovCampConnect took place – an unconventional cross-border unconference in the bowels of Narrow Waters Castle, widely regarded as a remarkable success. It brought together public sector, voluntary sector and commercial parties to compare best practice and to hash out ideas for taking digital transformation, open data and open source forward together. I have already signed up for the next.

In the meantime, if you do have an interest in open data in NI, I would also highly recommend checking out the Northern Ireland Tech & Design Slack’s #open-data channel.

The next question is, what’s missing? Full credit where credit is due – a significant portion of useful LPS/OSNI data going on to OpenDataNI has made a big difference, enabling a number of projects, including OurRagingPlanet. Nonetheless, postcode data is still sadly a major commercial limitation in Northern Ireland.

Ultimately, matching a postcode to a place essentially limits any resulting dataset, as it brings in commercial copyright restrictions. There isn’t a commercial way around this by paying enough money, as proprietary licensing cannot practically give an option of openly licensing resulting datasets, without undermining itself. Having this openly licensed would simplify translating a number of postcode-based datasets to coordinate-based datasets (such as NI GP surgery locations).

So plenty done and plenty to do! Keep watching the open data space, and bear in mind support is available, through from InnovateUK, InvestNI or even Horizon 2020 to help make it a reality.

Fundamentally, open source and open data is at the heart of innovation to come. Just don’t put a volcano on Divis Mountain, apparently that’s already been done.

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