Open Access | Open Data
NICVA, is the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action, a membership and representative umbrella body for the voluntary and community sector in Northern Ireland.
With around a thousand members – that range from household name charities to grass roots community groups – NICVA lobby and campaign to advance the interests of the people and communities that their members support. NICVA offer a wide range of practical services, products and support to their members to help them do what they do best – find innovative solutions for social challenges.
Managed by 32 staff, and 12 committee members, NICVA has a broad remit for a small to medium sized organisation. Alongside developing practical resources, NICVA also influences policy across a range of voluntary sector agendas.
NICVA has a significant online presence and runs a range of online resources including Community NI, Grantracker, ScopeNI, DetailData Portal, CollaborationNI, Sector Matters. Alongside collating a range of opportunities and resources across its various web platforms, NICVA has a strong presence on both Twitter and Facebook.
For The Techies in Residence Programme NICVA worked with Matthew O’Reilly from Kainos an IT services company based in Belfast.
As a central hub for information about and for the voluntary sector in Northern Ireland, NICVA recognised that more than simply creating and aggregating available resources and data it needed to make data more user friendly so that its members can use this data effectively. As such the challenge which NICVA brought to The Techies in Residence table was defined as:
Creating a directory that can be used by all of NICVA and the sector, which can feed into the work that NICVA are doing around Open Data. This needs to be easily shared and possibly crowdsourced information.
A core aim of this challenge was the creation of a tool that allowed for data to be collated, repurposed and reused across multiple platforms – whilst also ensuring that all data was up to date, and well maintained. NICVA came to Techies in Residence with a defined brief, and a technical skillset and as such it sought a partner to increase its technical capacity – and help them to realise a long term ambition.
The audience for this platform is diverse and includes individuals, government, local support agencies, MLA’s, academia and developers – and as such needs to be easily accessible and user friendly to use.
Kainos are a high growth tech company who were named in the Sunday Times top 100 companies to work for in 2016. Working with a large tech company presented opportunities and challenges, for example Kainos were very keen to examine and negotiate the contract with regards to the creation of IP and deliverables. However once these administrative processes were finalised, Kainos and Matthew committed fully to The Techies in Residence project.
Matthew participated in Techies in Residence for 10 weeks in a full time capacity, during which time he was based in the NICVA office. This is something that Stephen Gray, Head of Information Management at NICVA and organisational lead for Techies in Residence at NICVA felt was crucial. Having Matthew based in house helped to ensure Stephen was able to focus completely on the development process – matching resources and time commitment with the resources and time commitment of the technical partner is something that generated a really strong momentum throughout the in residence period.
When Matthew arrived at NICVA the groundwork for the project had already been completed, with Stephen having identified APIs, user need, and potential channels for developing extra functionality for open data. Stephen Gray had mapped 74 open data sets that were relevant to the work of NICVA and it’s members. Streamlining the work of NICVA to provide access to these data sets for its members was at the core to the development journey – how can the collation and dissemination of data ranging from census data to social services contact details be made easier and quicker for NICVA, it’s members and users?
The approach taken by NICVA and KAINOS to The Techies in Residence process was collaborative from the very start. Stephen Gray from NICAV came to it as an in house ‘techie’ keen to participate in Techies in Residence as a way to increase the technical capacity of NICVA as a means to develop a long held belief that a Content Management System and accompanying API developer documentation would benefit NICVA members and affiliates. By having a Techie in Residence – in this instance sharing the same office, Stephen explained that it was the incentive needed to delegate daily tasks to his team, so that he could really focus on turning this idea into a working prototype. ‘We shared an office and worked together on a daily basis to build the prototype. I primarily worked on the website build while Matthew worked on the reference app (android), API documentation and research standards and technical protocols that we wouldn’t have the time to do’. Stephen Gray
The 10-week in residence period also provided an added incentive to ‘get the job done’. ‘I had to invest in it, I felt that for it to really work I had to at least match the time, commitment and work of Matthew… There was a mutual dependency to deliver components to allow each other to progress – this created a momentum and focus’. Stephen Gray
Another motivation for NICVA to participate in Techies in Residence was to increase their profile within the digital community in Belfast. NICVA has found it difficult to recruit technical talent for junior roles. With many early career technical posts housed in innovative digital companies with table tennis and a free bar on a Friday – often with flexible and remote working – the VCSE sector can lack that ‘cool’ appeal. By participating in Techies in Residence, NICVA hoped to develop relationships with key influencers in the digital sector, and start a conversation about the benefits of working in the VCSE sector. It was this message that attracted Matthew ‘Being responsible for solving real-world problems in the VCSE sector is what attracted me most to The Techies in Residence Programme’.
‘As technology is rapidly growing in today’s society, digital solutions are very important for any organisation or sector, not just VCSE organisations. These projects also provide a lot of learning experiences between individuals, and provide many networking opportunities and industry events’. Matthew O’Reilly
The outcome of this project is a prototype web application, which allows users to:
- Create an account
- Update an account
- Important organisation details from external sources
- View organisation details
- Edit organisation details
- Claim an organisation
- Connect to an organisation
- Advanced search functionality
- View organisations by a range of filters
- Apply for and create an API key (by creating an application process, NICVA can prevent spam usage)
- API documentation (to allow users across organisations to use and talk to the Content Management System)
- A mobile application that connects to and consumes the API
Crucially this prototype provides the foundation for the development of a definitive database of NI VCSE sector and associated APIs – from where a new generation of data-led projects can be catalysed. Although currently a prototype, with user testing, and further development this will become a directory that can be used by both NICVA and the sector.
- The time commitment from the VCSE partner is something that NICVA recommends be more strongly emphasised at the application stage. ‘While we expected to make a significant contribution it was much more than originally envisaged. This is not a criticism – just a point for any future Techies in Residence programme, so that beneficiary organisations have a very clear understanding of what their responsibilities are to get a good outcome for all involved’. Stephen Gray
- Having the Techy in Residence – physically in residence – in this case sharing an office with the VCSE lead was crucial to creating momentum and drive from all involved.
- Front loading support to help both parties to understand and agree on an appropriate approach to project management would be helpful going forward. In this instance both parties decided to take an Agile approach – and used the Government Digital Service (GDS) documentation as a resource for developing their project management process. Knowledge of these processes allowed the team to use approaches such ‘project discovery’ to help refine the challenge with users, and as a result develop a very tight and user focussed brief.