Open data can drive progress—if you empower communities to use it

Successful projects combine data with insight, experience and expertise

September 10, 2017
BATH, UK - MAY 1, 2014: People walk along a busy street. The historic Somerset UNESCO World Heritage city is popular travel destination with over 4 million visitors per year.; Shutterstock ID 372644794; Publication: -; Job: -; Client/Licensee: -
BATH, UK - MAY 1, 2014: People walk along a busy street. The historic Somerset UNESCO World Heritage city is popular travel destination with over 4 million visitors per year.; Shutterstock ID 372644794; Publication: -; Job: -; Client/Licensee: -
Read more of Prospect's "Data as infrastructure" report

Open data is data that anyone can access, use and share. It can be used to drive economic growth, highlight and address social issues, and increase transparency.

The freedom to use data for any purpose allows it to be put to innovative uses that are often well beyond the reasons for its original collection. But data isn’t just a raw material, it’s becoming infrastructure for our modern society. Roads help us navigate to a destination, while data helps us navigate to a decision.

But many publishers of open data in local and central government and, increasingly, in the commercial sector, are finding that the data they publish goes unused.

There are many reasons for this. But a key factor is that publishers aren’t engaging with the communities who could use that data to help them solve problems. Purposeful publishing of data can drive greater impact, but it requires partnership and collaboration between the organisations stewarding data and those with the skills and incentive to use it.

Over the last few years in Bath and northeast Somerset we’ve been exploring an alternative approach. One that puts the community at the heart of exploring the benefits of open data for our area.

Bath: Hacked started in 2013, when the tech community and the council came together to explore the potential of opening up more data about our local area. Over the course of a number of hack days, we created a number of interesting proof-of-concept applications. More importantly, we showed there was definite interest and enthusiasm for working with any data that the council might publish.

This provided the initial momentum for the council’s open data publishing efforts. Guided by input from the community, the council is able to publish data that it knows will be of interest to local community groups.

In 2015, Bath: Hacked formalised as a community interest company, but remains entirely run by volunteers. The groups is also now part of a wider civic data partnership.

Over the last few years we’ve run hack days and meetups to create applications, maps and visualisations from open data. We’ve also hosted free training events to develop skills in the community to help people work with our published data. Data literacy is another often overlooked factor in a successful open data programme.

Our two main assets are our volunteers and our data store. The volunteers provide the skills and enthusiasm to make useful things from open data. The council is just one source of information about our area: other organisations and groups have data to share. Our data store provides the shared infrastructure that enables any local organisation to publish and share data.

Keen to move beyond hackdays and one-off visualisations over the last 18 months we’ve been running larger projects with the goal of increasing the impact of our work.

Using data provided by Strava we were able to collaborate with a local cycling group to explore how cyclists use the city. This provided insights that could inform planning, transport policy and prioritisation around local services.

Working with local stroke survivors we are mapping accessible spaces around the city, to develop a better understanding of mobility issues faced by wheelchair users. Using a crowdsourcing approach we mapped 30 per cent of the city in a single afternoon.

In partnership with the council and with support from the Open Data Institute, OVO Energy, Bath and West Community Energy and the Naturesave Trust, we are building Energy Sparks a free application to help schools become more energy efficient.

It will provide schools with greater insight into their energy usage and encourage the behaviour change necessary to reduce that usage. Previous projects have shown that savings of 20 per cent or more are possible through simple changes. The project is made possible by combining the experience of local sustainability groups with open data from the council and the technical expertise of the Bath: Hacked community. We plan to roll this out to all schools in the area over the next year.

Bath and northeast Somerset and the southwest in general have a strong technical community which has helped to drive Bath: Hacked forward. But our experience is not unique, and other areas of the UK are following a similar path. For example, The Bristol Approach is exploring community-led technology projects in Bristol, with a focus on creating a data commons.

Other cities, local authorities and regions of the UK could similarly benefit by exploring more community-led collaborative projects. We think that connecting tech clusters with local data provides an interesting model to reshape how services are defined and delivered.

Data becomes more valuable when it is connected with other sources. Data projects usually involve combining data from multiple organisations. Successful projects combine data with insight, experience and expertise from those organisations. These are the foundations of open innovation.

On the 3rd of October, Prospect launched Data as Infrastructure. This special report grew out of a series of high-level roundtable meetings over the summer which brought together government, private businesses and the third sector to look at how data is already being used to improve people’s lives and how it has the potential to do so much more.

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