Open and be damned

From a standing start to £10m in turnover in just three years is going some – and for a non-profit membership, training and research organisation more so. But that’s been the giddy rise of the Open Data Institute since founding in 2012. Granted – it’s had the backing and benefit of some high profile leaders in Tim Berners Lee and Gavin Starks. But it’s testament as well to the burgeoning interest in the power of Big Data.

The pitch – that data access, availability, analysis and presentation offer the potential to provide insights and find solutions to contemporary problems – is a compelling one that twins the modern zests for tech start-up and social mission. It appeals to my inner economist too – we’d expect social outcomes to be less than optimal if knowledge is ‘asymmetrical’ – known, understood and used by one group but not others – or if the cost of information dissemination prevents the ‘positive externality’ of spill-over effects.

Plenty of examples of using data to solve social problems were on show at the recent ODI annual summit:  from ambitious plans to  help solve the national housing crisis, by matching householders needs with available stock; to a clever app that can serve the dual purpose of helping schools track sickness absence whilst mapping outbreaks of notifiable diseases. Another offers market intelligence to assess the business potential of  empty commercial property in urban centres by aggregating data on local buying power, and combining this with existing data on the costs of doing business. It’s a useful guide to whether that great business idea you had (my latest is a local bakery based that looks like this) is likely to be a going concern. I’ve even wondered about its usefulness for assessing grant funding business start-ups, such as through HLF’s Heritage Enterprise programme.

My own efforts in this area were last year’s major work project, a joint production with the RSA to create the first-ever Heritage Index. Combining more than 100 datasets we devised this as a tool for starting conversations about the heritage that exists in each local authority area of the country. We added to a basic ‘assets’ layer by including data on the extent of heritage-based activity that is also taking place.

Or at least – what heritage assets and activities have been recorded as datasets, both ‘official’ (the Historic England listed buildings set for example) but also through bottom-up data initiatives (blue plaques created by

Once we’d crunched the data it seemed logical to present the results as a ranking of local authorities – which inevitably became a ‘league table’. But we did this as much to find the surprising stories it would reveal. Scarborough, Hastings and Dundee were some of the less expected top performers in the Index, alongside the places you’d expect to see – the City of London, Edinburgh and Oxford. All that got good publicity. But alongside came a mini media storm in the places with poor rankings. On one level that was understandable  – why further blight places by bringing  attention to another layer of under-performance in areas already perceived as ‘struggling’ (though, interestingly, our Index didn’t find any link between score on the heritage Index and measures of deprivation)?

Inevitably we were also told what was missing from the Index. This was welcome. We hadn’t created any new data for the Index – all we had done was to bring together existing sources in a new, accessible way, using attractive mapping and visuals. But this shone a light on the underlying data sets – and revealed more clearly what has been deemed worthy of being counted. Look for example at this heat map of listed buildings – it’s the result of expert judgements on heritage that is worth conserving, but is it also a reflection – at least in part – of social and political factors that have led to more efforts to list in the South and parts of the Midlands?

Presenting this data more openly, and in a more inspiring way, can bring it to more people’s notice and lead to discussion, challenge and debate about what people really do care about and value. According to community archaeologist Helen Graham, “ I wonder how the Heritage Index might be deployed as a conversation starter, something we can productively debate and disagree with. Indeed, it is probably more through the activity it produces rather than the activity is seeks to capture, that the Heritage Index has the potential to become a lever for change“

Interestingly this experience was similar to another project featured at the ODI summit. Run by Jamie Whyte in Trafford, this was a determined to effort to make sure everyone locally could access data about their area – from public health consultants, to community groups and the general public. The data assembly and mapping are impressive enough, but were combined by the team’s commitment to share everything they do – blogging, tweeting, speaking – through data surgeries, data visualisations, and meetings. One practical result was to help in deciding the location of defibrillators in places where they would be most useful. Another was how data about energy use starkly revealed how much more energy was consumed in the richer parts of the borough – and hence how much more responsible these local residents are for localised carbon emissions. This was a potent conversation starter – just like our Heritage Index.

Which all goes to show us, I think, that it’s the O word which really counts in ODI. In many cases clever data crunchers at RSA and Trafford are simply combining existing datasets in new, interesting and easy-to-view ways. If there are omissions, oversights and prejudices in how that underlying data has been assembled, these efforts are to be applauded for bringing that to light, not castigated for flaws in their methods.

Appropriately the theme of the ODI’s summit was ‘Generation Open’ – “a generation not bound by age, income or border that expects everything to be accessible” and with a mindset that “believes we can transform sectors around the world, from business to art, by promoting transparency, accessibility, innovation and collaboration”. So open up. Just don’t expect plaudits from every quarter when you do.







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