Ann Allan: Open Government Meets The Environment.


Citizens are demanding that the state should be their servant and that information that governments hold should be open for everyone to see.”  

Rt. Hon Francis Maude

On Monday night, in my role as a member of the Open Government steering committee, I attended the launch of the first Environment week. It was held in the Long Hall at Stormont. Launched by Anna Lo MLA MBE, the main aim of Environment Week is to raise awareness  of environmental issues primarily among our public representatives, and provide opportunities for the environmental NGO (Non- Governmental Organisation) sector to engage with MLAs.

Arriving at Stormont there was a notable presence of outside broadcast vans. Wonder was there anything important happening? The long hall was full and I recognised a few faces; Chris Lyttle, Jim Wells, and the two Durkans, Mark and Mark H.  Anna Lo, who is Chairperson of  the Environment Committee, came over and introduced herself.  We had a chat and she expressed her interest in the concept of Open Government.  In keeping with environmental week there were plates of vegetarian sandwiches and lots of smelly cheeses.

Anna started by saying that
” In today’s busy world, events like this provide us all with an opportunity to appreciate what our local environment has to offer. It is vital for our health and well–being. We depend on it for food, energy, raw materials and water. We have a wealth of built heritage, habitats and wildlife which we need to look after. As Chair of the Environment Committee, I am delighted to launch the first Environment Week for Northern Ireland and look forward to seeing this event prosper in the years to come.”image

She then told us about her own personal project to project the swift. Swifts are coming under threat due to the recent trend in renovating our homes. Blocking up eaves and repairing holes and cracks means there are fewer nesting places. Food for thought.image

Minister Mark H Durkan congratulated NIEL and the Environment Committee for organising the week. He said

“This is a good example of how our eNGO sector can help us to deliver environmental outcomes. As budgets come under increasing pressure, their expertise and enthusiasm in securing match funding and harnessing volunteers will become ever more important.” 

He also explained that he had teamed up with Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful to back the Eco-schools hedgehog campaign and his hopes to protect the hedgehog. Apparently hedgehog houses are the way to go about it. He mentioned Ballycraigy Primary in Antrim and Elmgrove Primary in East Belfast for their excellent work in helping to save the hedgehog. Mark H also confirmed that he has banned the growth of all GM crops in Northern Ireland.image
Patrick Casement, Chairperson of Northern Ireland Environment Link concluded by commenting that

Environment week is a celebration of Northern Ireland’s environment and an opportunity to raise awareness of environmental issues primarily among our public representatives “

Belonging to an organisation like Open Government has opened up a new world for me. I feel as if I’m more in touch with what is going in NI and I’m much more involved. I was unaware of the plight of the swift and the hedgehog and would probably still be would had I not attended tonight’s launch.  It certainly makes a change from listening to bickering politicians. I have also to confess that some of what goes on is way above my head, especially when the buzz words and the civil service jargon are being bandied about.  I’m trying to get my fellow committee members to see that everyone needs to know our aims and aspirations and that will be a lot easier if it is written in language that everyone can understand, especially old dears like me.image

Tuesday lunchtime and the second day of Environment week. Time for Open Government to explain how it can assist in protecting the environment. This will be a learning curve for me as it is not something I have thought about.

Open Gov NI had been invited to host a lunch time seminar. After a nice lunch (I opted for the scampi and chips) Jonathan Bell our Project Coordinator welcomed everyone and explained what OGN was all about. What is open government you may ask? Simply it’s asking that governments make themselves more open and accountable to the citizens who elect them. Compared to England, and to a lesser extent Wales and Scotland,  the Open Government Partnership has had little impact for us in Northern Ireland. Our NI steering group is forging ahead with the process for developing the NI specific commitments for the UK action plan. Jonny encouraged those attending to join our network  and support the campaign.

A draft set of commitments is currently open for comment on the OGN Forum ( )The draft ideas will be shared with DFP and a set of Joint OGN-DFP commitments will be produced. The commitments will be further refined and revised at a joint OGN-DFP workshop towards the end of October, which will inform the development of a final set of draft commitments. Subject to Ministerial approval the commitments will be forwarded to the Cabinet Office for inclusion in the Draft UK Open Government Action Plan.

I had a go at Periscoping the event (relax Basil) and at this stage had 180 plus viewers some of whom stayed for the entire event. Sore arms afterwards but worth it.IMG_0276

Dr. Peter Doran QUB/Carnegie Trust was next.  See link below. To give you a flavour of what he said I’ve quoted a piece from his talk :

Nobody gets up in the morning and says to him/ herself: ‘That’s a fine day to accelerate climate change and put the world on course for concentrations that are unprecedented in human history.’

Nobody – at least I hope – gets up in the morning and celebrates the fact that we are living through the sixth great mass extinction of species and plant life on earth. Indeed, just last week the WWF reported that due to pollution, industrial fishing and climate change, we have killed off half of all marine life in the past four decades.

Welcome to the age of the ‘Anthropocene’. We humans – you and I – are now the decisive agents of change in the Earth’s planetary and atmospheric systems.”

Andrea Thornbury the Project Coordinator of the Detail Data Project gave a presentation in which she explained that there are seven types of data, two of which refer specifically to the environment. They are:

Weather : The many types of information used to understand and predict the weather and climate and

Environment : Information related to the natural environment such as,  presence and level of pollutants, the quality of rivers and the seas.

Through research the Northern Ireland Open Government Network identified Open Data as one of their key areas of focus for the next 18 months and the network has linked in with the Detail Data Project in the pursuit of this. While the UK leads on the open data barometer Northern Ireland is lagging behind. However an Open Data ecosystem is starting to develop on the Assembly Management System.

All in all an interesting session. I would however suggest that the talks could be shorter and give fewer statistics and details. In my opinion, and talking to others in the hall, I got the impression that very few grasp all the information at the time but they do grasp short punchy points. Perhaps handouts of the more detailed information would be helpful.

There were many questions after the session which is always a good sign.

Anyway,  time to go home and try writing it all up in a blog. The challenge in writing a blog is that most people only read the first few paragraphs, and very few stay to the end. So if you are still with me,  please click on the links below for more information. Thank you.


Paul Braithwaite

‏@Paul_BCT Sep 22
shocking fact: belfast-l’derry train takes 20mins longer now than in 1948! @DetailData story

Follow on Twitter @OpenGovNI


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