Why councils have embraced open data

Theresa Grant, May 18, 2017 3 min read

This article was originally posted on the Tech North website.

Theresa Grant is Chief Executive at Trafford Council.

Some say a picture speaks a thousand words and they certainly do here in Trafford.

Most people respond well to pictures, graphs, fancy charts and infographics; myself being one of them. I’m attracted by the quick burst of information that tells me everything I need to know without having to read a hefty report (of which I read many).

Councils, and other public sector organisations, on a daily basis gather thousands of pieces of information about their residents and the activity taking place in the borough around health, physical activity, crime, education and transport amongst other things.

This information is often held by individuals or services and only shared on a ‘need to know’ basis or isn’t seen as valuable to others. However information is a powerful tool and we have discovered in Trafford the impact it can have if it is made available in the right ways to the right audiences. It can make significant efficiencies and real differences in our communities.

Data innovation and intelligence

Trafford Council launched a data innovation and intelligence lab in October 2014 on the back of the governments push for Open Data. Trafford has a very forward-thinking attitude and could see the benefits of pooling data and putting it all in one place as a central resource so everyone has access to it when they need it, and can see it in ways that are meaningful and useful. Sounds like a simple concept but what it has helped achieve has been phenomenal.

Within months the lab was proving its worth, and in 2015 the Trafford Partnership hosted locality workshops with the lab taking centre stage. The Trafford Partnership is made up of mainly public sector partners, with representation from local communities, the voluntary and private sector. Our locality networks are made up of representatives from each of these stakeholder groups and are spilt into four areas, one for each of the four areas of Trafford. Each of these areas has its own challenges and assets so we mapped the data we had for each area to show a true picture of Trafford.

The audience was captivated with the level of information available about their communities – solid, evidence based and vital information to help them to tackle, or make them aware of, issues in their communities. There were also some surprises within the localities and some perceptions quashed!

Turning data into intelligence

From a council point of view, communities supporting and helping themselves makes them less dependent on council services and is one of our key priorities. The trick is turning data into intelligence by layering data sets so that we can use information to tell a story.

The innovation lab now runs regular, and extremely popular, community workshops and pop up labs and has helped many community groups. In one particular example, the lab directly helped 14 individuals/groups to secure a share of £20,000 by providing data and visualisations for their applications. By taking a proactive approach to putting our data (good and bad) out there and shouting about it, the risk is clearly paying off.

Internally we have achieved significant improvements in meeting some of our targets through support from the lab. For example, our performance figures were showing that we had a local issue with the number of 0-4 year olds presenting at A & E with unintentional or deliberate injuries – the question was why?

Provided with data from local health colleagues summarising hospital admissions for this age group from 2009 to 2016, the lab were able to categorise these into a number of primary diagnoses. This then gave us counts of admission by type associated to GP surgeries that were then mapped.

The map now allows health professionals to target localised areas with specific information relevant to health and safety in the hope that this will reduce the number of future incidents, therefore reducing the burden on A & E services.

Recruiting the right people

While the data is available, and can be presented in a user friendly manner, one challenge we face is recruiting the right people to fulfil the roles in the lab. This is a new approach for councils and we struggle to target and attract the right people who want to work in a council in this type of role – maybe we’re perceived as being too bureaucratic?

In reality this role is exciting, has a huge amount of scope. It allows the post holders the opportunity to network across a vast amount of public, private and voluntary sector partners as well as working at the heart of communities to make a difference – giving them and us the power of information to make big, and real, differences in communities.

We have two key senior posts currently out for recruitment: a Data Innovation Specialist and a Data Innovation and Intelligence Lab Manager. We need the right people to fill the roles with the right background, credentials and attitude.  We need people confident enough to go and speak to colleagues, stakeholders, residents and businesses and demonstrate the power of this information and how it can benefit their business.  Whilst we’re tackling challenges in our communities head on though the power of information, finding the right people to drive this agenda is a challenge we’re hoping to overcome very soon.

Image credit: Ben and Rachel Apps / Flickr

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