Public Services > Local Government

The future of open data is local

Charlotte Jee Published 31 March 2014

Mark Barrett, open data lead at Leeds Data Mill, explains progress on the scheme so far - and some big plans for its future


The last three months have been the busiest three months of my life. In December we started to create Leeds Data Mill - the open data platform for the city. Traditionally cities use their data platform to release city council data, however we wanted to be more ambitious than that in Leeds and have worked to gain data not just from the city council (an amazing resource in itself), but from private sector and third sector.

With such rich data from across the whole of the city, we can start to understand the local area in a level of detail that has never been possible until now. We've just launched the site, held our first two events, and released 54 datasets - 35 had never been seen before - the start of our open data journey. In the short-term our goal is for Leeds to be the city with the largest number of datasets available online in the country.

But why is this important? I believe that the future of open data is local. I've worked on national datasets and became frustrated when few used this beautiful data. Why is it beautiful? Because my colleagues spent hours, if not weeks (and sometimes months) working on it to make sure firstly it could be released, and secondly it was ready to be made available as open data so that individuals could not be identified in the data. So why wasn't everyone using it to create things? Some were, and their work was fantastic - just put a spotlight on the Open Data Institute in London and see what they've produced - amazing!

Relating to the data

So why wasn't everyone else getting it, and why did we struggle to find case studies? I think it was because people couldn't relate to the data on a personal level. It's hard to relate to because Leeds (or Manchester, or Birmingham, or XYZ) is just a single line on a spreadsheet. Does this connect me to the data - no, not really. So, my passion for Open Data has led me from national, to local (hyper-local even).

Why? Because I want to understand my street, my village, my city in more detail so I can not only interact with it more - feeling more connected to my surroundings. Oh, and I want to improve my surroundings - not just for me, but for everyone.

So on a practical level, what does that mean? I want to be notified when a planning application is submitted for something down my street so I can ask them about which builders that are using. I want to know when I need to pop round to my Gran's house to put her wheelie bin out as she struggles with it. I want to know if more people are walking down my high street because they want to go to a new coffee shop - does that level of high street footfall stay at a constantly higher rate? Why shouldn't I be able to interact with my surroundings like that?

First hack event

So, how on earth can you deliver this vision? Thankfully with not only with a very supportive city council, who get it, but also with others that want to see this change happen. I work alongside Leanne Buchan and Abhay Adhikari (pictured above, next to me) - amazing people who have achieved so much with their respective work, but are now working with me to deliver our vision for the city.

We held our first hack event last week at Leeds City Museum - a fantastic space that brought 50 people together to create new 'things' for the city. Leanne and Abhay ran the event and did things completely differently to how I've run previous events. Rather than having a room full of developers, they designed the event to include subject matter experts, service users, graphic designers, and developers.

It worked, and developers mentioned that it was the first time they'd been to a hack like it, and understood so much more about the data they were using and ways it could be used, as their team was multi-skilled. The winning teams have blogged on the site to explain their approach for the event, and to highlight the work that they produced.

Creating a culture of openness

Obviously, not everything has been plain sailing. Creating a culture of openness is not something that can be done overnight. People have concerns. It's difficult to explain that a dataset that someone manages isn't a dataset they own. So we talk about stories instead. Abhay drilled this into us at the start of the journey.

Data is scary to someone that doesn't work with data. When we talk to service managers, we talk about the things they have always wanted to know, the things they want to explain, the things they are keen to promote. Only then do we explain how we can help them tell their (frequently unexpected, and amazing) stories. Who knew Leeds is one of the largest lenders of artworks in the world?! It's fascinating meeting people that know their area of work inside and out - there are so many unexpected gems hidden behind closed doors.

The vision is to release these hidden gems and let others create things we never saw coming as well as the things we hope for. It also helps that Leeds City Council (led by chief executive Tom Riordan, and chief officer for ICT Dylan Roberts) are determined to change the council, and indeed, the city, to be open by default. The joint funding from the Open Data User Group within Cabinet Office also helped us significantly accelerate our work and release more data.

Open cities

We've also been looking at the amazing work that other cities are doing especially Helsinki , New York , Glasgow , Chicago and many others. It's truly inspiring to see cities doing things differently from what is expected, and what is standard. We want to put Leeds in the same sentence when people are looking for leading examples of open cities.

Similarly, we want to share. Share our experiences with other cities, help them create or work with communities who want to use data, and help them create their own data platforms, bespoke for their city, rather than taking something from off the shelf - one size doesn't fit all.

Perpetual beta

So, what next? We're in 'perpetual beta' - constantly improving and adding to our offering ('fashion is never finished'). We're also going to be running more workshops so we can engage with those that manage data - helping them start their data journey. We're running events that bring real actual people into our Open Data world and help them improve their city in new exciting ways .We're going to be working with schools to show the next generation how to create, rather than consume. AND we're creating a city dashboard like nothing else out there.

Leeds will be a leading open data city alongside those we admire. We're just three months into our journey and are keen to work with other cities to realise the potential of their data when it's opened up. The next few months will see us launch a number of exciting projects. We're just getting started...

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