How Swirrl helps us all get more value from open data

Martin Bryant, May 27, 2016 2 min read

This article was originally posted on the Tech North website.

This week Tech North launched the Digital Powerhouse Report, detailing how collaboration can help boost the Northern tech sector. One startup highlighted in the report for its approach to open data is Swirrl. We talked to the company to find out how it’s helping the public sector open up.

Government bodies are increasingly expected to make their data available for developers to build applications on, but releasing that data in a truly useful way isn’t always easy.

Manchester-based Swirrl offers them salvation in the form of PublishMyData, a tool that transforms often poorly formatted data into a form that is structured and machine-readable. Although it’s primarily an open data publishing platform, it can also be used internally with organisations to help them make more of the information they hold.

Brothers Bill and Ric Roberts started Swirrl as a side project eight years ago. It was initially a tool for turning information from a wiki into structured data, and based on a freemium model. Although it was a popular product, it didn’t work out too well as a business. “We had more than 10,000 users but less than 10 of them were paying,” says Ric. Ouch.

Right time, right place

Then around five years ago, things started to change for the Roberts brothers. They received a grant to develop PublishMyData for the public sector. This was at a time when open data was becoming popular, and government bodies were under pressure to deliver datasets that could be used by developers, journalists and other interested parties.


Now with more than 10 public sector clients and around 10 staff, things are going well for Swirrl. The company is profitable, and having taken government grants rather than equity-based investment to develop PublishMyData, it’s 100 percent owned by the founders. The product powers initiatives like Scotland’s statistics platform and the Department for Communities & Local Government’s Open Data Communities site.

Ric Roberts says that there’s plenty more room for growth, not just in Swirrl’s customer base but also in the usefulness of the data. Because each data point has its own URI (uniform resource identifier), it’s easy for developers to combine information from multiple sources.

“Open data is more useful the more of it there is – there’s a snowball effect,” he explains – and Swirrl looks set to help us all build an absolutely enormous snowball.

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