Innovation and changeDigital TransformationUsing open data to redesign public services

Using open data to redesign public services

Find out how four local authorities have used open data to tackle some of their key citizen issues

The challenge of redesigning public services is a difficult one. Local authorities recognise the need to deliver improved services across multiple channels, yet they are having to do more against the backdrop of budget cuts and austerity.

In an attempt to answer this problem, four councils have turned to open data to redesign key public services in order to improve the lives of local residents, offering them targeted help, advice and opportunities. The projects, funded by Innovate UK through the Open Data Institute (ODI), were run by Doncaster Council, Kent County Council, the London Borough of Waltham Forest and North Lanarkshire Council, worked on tackling fuel poverty, increasing visitor numbers at cultural centres, helping young people make better career and education choices and reducing Freedom of Information requests.

The work forms part of a three-year innovation programme being run by the ODI which aims to build data infrastructure, stimulate data innovation and build trust in the use of data. As part of the project, the ODI awarded funding to collaborations between four local government organisations and external partners to redesign a public service with open data, making it more efficient and citizen focused.

The four projects are as follows, along with the lessons learned during the project:

Doncaster Council and Uscreates

Doncaster Council teamed up with Uscreates to explore the careers information, advice and guidance services available to young people aged 11 to 18 across the borough. The team used data from across Doncaster – as well as speaking to learners and careers advisors – to create a tool that helps young people access comprehensive information about their options for training, education and employment.

David Ayre, Head of Strategy & Performance at Doncaster Council said: “We felt that by developing a tool that made sense of the overwhelming amount of information available, we were not only investing in the students of today but also the future. The use of open data has enabled us to be able to provide a careers advice tool which gives students the confidence and information to go ahead and make positive, informed choices about their future.”

The Social Mobility Opportunity Area Board in Doncaster has now signed off £100k of funding to develop a functional prototype over the next 6 months with the intention that it is ready to go live in January 2019.

Lessons learned:

  • Exercise your role as an ecosystem convener: The project enabled Doncaster Council to convene partners and to create impact in an area beyond its core service provision. It has mobilised partners around the challenge and given focus and momentum to future work. User research and co-design activities enabled agencies to work together on service delivery.
  • Learn from your peers: The multidisciplinary team of service designers, local government innovators, policy experts and data scientists brought different perspectives and ways of working. The team learned new skills from each other, building capacity for further open data projects across the council.
  • Build data literacy skills across the wider team: The biggest challenge was supporting the council and partners to understand the benefits of publishing and using data. Useful data shared within the team was not open, but could have been. This created time pressures on the team who had to manually convert information from a PDF that could be fed into the prototypes. The team challenged these perceptions throughout the project, by championing open data publishing, but recognise there is more to do in promoting the benefits of open data.

Kent County Council, Kent Energy Efficiency Partnership and Uscreates

Fuel poverty can have detrimental effects on both physical and mental health. Kent County Council and the Kent Energy Efficiency Partnership are committed to reducing the number of its residents living in fuel poverty. Working alongside Uscreates, the team used a range of closed, shared, and open datasets to look at which segments of the population are more at risk, along with health and care needs by postcode. Use of systems dynamic modelling also allowed the team to quantify the number people likely to be effected by fuel poverty and how that would impact, over time, on prevalence of chronic conditions (eg COPD) as well as health care demand.

Dipna Pattni from Kent Energy Efficiency Partnership said: “By using open data to understand more about the demographic of our residents, we can create services which are preventative and tailored to the needs of those receiving them. Services can switch from reactively supporting people after a crisis, to preventing the crisis in the first place. This change in behaviour can help communities and individuals grow and thrive, reduce the welfare benefits bill and increase employment rates.”

Lessons learned:

  • Keep your redesign or intervention focused: The fuel poverty intervention is provided by a network of partners with different skills, availability, geographic locations and goals. Developing a refined brief for the project helped to create a shared understanding and to define roles and focus.
  • Understand the motivations of those who design and deliver the service:Regular meetings to understand goals and challenges provided the project team with a clearer set of objectives from funders, strategists, policy officers and frontline workers.
  • Run data discovery sessions: A landscape review of data (closed, shared and open) through interviews with councils and local authorities helped to form a picture of the available data. The people responsible for data processing and data analysis were particularly helpful as well as stewards of datasets that are linked to fuel poverty identifiers, for example data on types of housing.
  • Keep the user in mind: Much of the project focused on strategy and systems which can feel conceptual and disconnected from the end service user. To keep their needs in mind, personaswere used throughout the project.
  • Understand data access and governance: Datasets that contain information about people, such as the Kent Integrated Dataset cannot be released openly but are important in helping to better understand fuel poverty. To use this data effectively, systems and governance should be established to allow access to named individuals, enabling effective analysis alongside other datasets.

North Lanarkshire Council, Snook and Urban Tide

To help improve economic opportunities and outcomes for all, North Lanarkshire Council has an ‘open by default’ data policy for non-sensitive data. Working alongside Snook and UrbanTide, the council applied this open approach to its business rate data, to better understand demand for the data and reduce Freedom of Information requests.

Peter Tolland, Customer and Information Governance Manager from North Lanarkshire Council said: “The use of open data not only enables the public to have access to information when they require it, but it enables council services to be more efficient and cost effective. On a wider scale, open data can be used to understand a region’s demographic which means communities can be created specifically for the needs of its residents.”

Lessons learned:

  • Understanding data access: Requesting access to data and creating data sharing agreements takes time and should be built into your project at the start.
  • Find creative ways to get user feedback: There was a limited response from service users who were asked to take part in research which was designed to understand the challenges faced. The team used detailed FOI requests to build a picture of needs.
  • Use existing service design toolkits: Team members used service design templates and techniques that they were familiar with and existing open data resources such as the Scottish Government Open Data Resource Pack. The toolkit developed by the team is designed to be read alongside this resource. They found lots of service design resources and techniques were transferable to open data projects and that reusing materials reduced the number of new tools required.
  • Build data literacy across the team: UrbanTide had trained North Lanarkshire Council on open data practices before the project, which meant the team was more comfortable with the topic and championed data-enabled services across the council.

London Borough of Waltham Forest Council, Audience Agency and Technology Box

Waltham Forest Council are to become the first Mayor’s London Borough of Culture in 2019. The Council wanted to use this project as an opportunity to explore how data and technology can help to increase engagement in arts, heritage and culture across the borough.

The council partnered with The Audience Agency and Technology Box to install wifi access point technology inside all main rooms within the Vestry House Museum. A combination of footfall data and splash page responses enabled the project team to map user journeys within the museum. This insight could then be referred to when exploring the wider ‘cultural footprint’ of the Borough. The team also ensured it acted ethically and engaged the community in decisions about the data collection and use throughout the project.

Cllr Clare Coghill, Leader of the Council, said: “With over 275,000 residents in the borough, we wanted to use data to understand how the entire community accessed culture and arts, rather than just the majority. As the first Mayor’s London Borough of Culture, we felt that it was essential that the whole borough’s interest in art and culture could be catered for. By using open, closed and shared data we have been able to look at consumer behaviours in relation to location, with the aim of building stronger communities for the future.”

Lessons learned:

  • Using existing frameworks: Using existing design or transformation frameworks supports the agile and open approach needed to innovate with data for service delivery. The team learned how to expand its use of data within the existing Waltham Forest design practice, building up knowledge for future projects. Working in a consortium brought different skills, expertise and perspectives to the project.
  • Draw it out: The project inspired others in the council, and raised the stakes for service innovation and what is technically possible. To articulate the use of data to other stakeholders inside and outside of the council, Waltham Forest Council developed a data journey map.
  • Consider the ethics of your data use: There were significant ethical and legal considerations around the use of data collected from individuals. Waltham Forest worked with their legal teams on the wifi terms and conditions and with the ODI on the ethical use of data. The team used the ODI’s Data Ethics Canvas to guide discussions and make decisions around its approach to collecting, analysing and publishing data.
  • Build data literacy across the organisation: For many staff, open data is unfamiliar. Explaining open data was key to engaging people to talk about the ethics involved in data collection and publishing. Throughout the project, the team worked with colleagues from across very different departments: legal, insight and intelligence, business intelligence, culture, digital and ICT. The breadth of interest stems from the realisation that data really can improve Waltham Forest Council’s services.

Building blocks

Each team that took part in this innovative project consisted of a local authority and external partners which specialise in either service design, data, research or technology. The range of partners involved helped to build skills and knowledge across the teams for this and future projects.

Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries Margot James said: “Used correctly data can be an incredibly powerful tool to improve services used by people every day. It’s great to see that the Open Data Institute is promoting the positive use of data in ways which can stimulate the local economy and boost growth.”

Stephen Browning, Head of Digital at Innovate UK said: “These excellent projects show the impact data can have on driving innovation in our public services. Innovate UK is committed to maximising the opportunities of data on our services and economy through our support for the ODI’s important work in this area, as well as through supporting competitions using SBRI such as the new GovTech Catalyst competition with DEFRA for waste data tracking solutions.”

Jeni Tennison, CEO at the ODI said: “These projects demonstrate the different ways in which data can be used to influence and improve public services. They also show how collaboration and open innovation can lead to novel approaches and build digital and data capability within local government teams. We hope that this work helps inspire other local and regional governments to experiment with using data as a tool to inform the delivery of public services, save money and better support communities.”

Over the next year the ODI will be working with the public sector and their service design partners to create and test tools that help people use open data when delivering and designing services.

For more information on the four projects listed above, head along to the ODI’s page here.


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