Can Open Data help Northern Ireland bring down its interfaces?

The interface team in Northern Ireland is tasked with dealing with the peace walls – Interfaces – which separate Protestant and Catholic areas of Belfast and elsewhere – which are due to come down by 2023. The program has a Twitter account and Facebook accounts to increase engagement with individuals and communities concerned.

Cupar Way is the largest of the interface structures.


In order to get them down, then government has committed to only removing them with the consent of the involved communities – but actually reaching this point present significant challenges. And some of these areas are the most deprived in Northern Ireland.

The data accuracy problem

They have some data, but it’s not open yet. They’re developing mapping data, and have existing data on crime, health, bonfires and so on. Could there be an open data platform to bring this all together? There are some data sharing agreements with the various sources of data – and there are some problems surfacing because in some places the data sources aren’t accurate (or detailed) enough. That needs to be solved before it’s opened, because of the sensitivities involved.

It’s clearly very important to get this right. They need to the best possible information before they can make decisions if the walls are safe to come down.

Academia must have useful data for this process. Is there some? How would they get hold of it?

How can they ensure that the general public engage with the data? A portal would be ideal – but they’re a long way from that. There’s a lack of technical expertise in the team, but there’s a lot of interest that needs transforming into resources and actual help. They’re more than keen to add new people to the “dream team” behind it.

The definition problem

There’s some contention about the number and length of interfaces out there. How do you define communities for consultation purposes? Residents? Businesses? Churches?

Once you’ve done that, how do you consult?

Academia have been doing some interesting work mapping religion and communities around the walls – some communities live right up to them, some don’t as the nearby houses are now gone.

There’s some debate about what is an interface or not. The DoJ is responsible for 59 structures, and they have been reduced to 49 to date. There is a physical map of interfaces – but it’s not owned by them. They have their own data – which they would like to publish. Something as simple as GPS co-ordinates linked as walls could serve. Postcodes are not open in Northern Ireland, which doesn’t help.

A need for more informed consultation

The Interface team engages with people day to day in a grassroots manner. But they’d like more data on service duplication, travel time increases and so on, that could help persuade communities that they’d be better off without the interfaces. It will help them understand the benefits and impact.

Current responses form these communities are genuinely mixed. They’ve been building up their engagement over the last year, but they’re still not reaching the local residents enough. There are issues of power and control over the communities to deal with.

One attendee pointed out that data shows that many communities either side of an interface are identically in terms of economic, health and crime data. The only difference is religion. Can that data be used to help reconcile people?

There is trans-generational trauma at work in some communities, which makes just testing opening up doors in the interface problematic. They can’t just go in with sledgehammers – you need to bring the communities along with the idea. Tech’s A/B testing doesn’t normally lead to petrol bombs…

In summary

They need assistance. Anyone who can get the data portal idea to move forwards, or who has ideas should get in contact.

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