Information Commissioner Emily O’Reilly at the launch of her annual report yesterday argued that:

“Members of the public, who ultimately shoulder the burden of this country’s debt . . . have a right to have all information at their disposal to analyse in an informed manner, the decisions which had, and will continue to have, such a profound effect on their lives.”

She notes a growing trend for public bodies to be removed from the FOI process and demanded it be extended to every public body.

Given that it is taxpayers money that is being used to fund public bodies and generate the data and decisions in the first place, it seems to me that an extremely compelling reason is needed to keep data and information from the public domain.  Often the reasons given are spurious and a smokescreen, such as that of commercial sensitivity used by NAMA.  Whilst there may well be some limited data that would affect the ability of NAMA to operate effectively, to shroud the whole organisation behind such excuses is lamentable.  The same for the Central Bank, NTMA, the Financial Services Authority, and other bodies.

Our AIRO project has been working to persuade state agencies to make their data sets available and to allow us to put their data in the public domain in map and statistical form.   Presently we have around 150 interactive mapping modules online for different geographies (regions, counties, constituencies, local partnerships) including modules concerning housing, unfinished estates, commuting, social deprivation, the live register, crime, all the census data, etc.  The restriction is that the data cannot be used for commercial gain due to data license issues (which is why it requires a login username and password).

There is a massive amount of very useful data locked inside of public bodies that is either not analyzed at all, including by the agency that holds it, or is severly under-analyzed.  We need to gain access to this data both to be able to hold public bodies to account, but just as importantly to undertake evidence-informed analysis and decision making.  My hope is that the government listens and responds constructively to Emily O’Reilly’s plea, and doesn’t try to come up with all kinds of spurious and bogus reasons to dismiss or ignore her argument.

Rob Kitchin

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