2016 promises to be year in which the potential of data to transform public services in Scotland finally gains mainstream recognition. How did we get to this tipping point, what will happen next, and how can we support the expected activity? Ian Watt of ODI Aberdeen gives his personal assessment of the year ahead.
The shift to a focus on the more effective use of data across the Scottish public sector, started in a number of areas around 2013 and continued through 2014. These included the first publication in Scotland of both open data and linked data, by Aberdeen City Council; the Nesta-funded Make It Local programme; Swirl’s work for the Scottish Government in providing a Linked Data platform for the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation; the Glasgow £24m Future City Programme and others.
Then, in 2015 there were number of significant developments. These included:
- the publication in February of the Scottish Government’s Open Data Strategy,
- The conclusion of the Nesta-supported Open Data Scotland programme, conducted under the Code For Europe banner, involving four Scottish councils,
- the launch in October of the Scottish Cities Alliance (SCA)’s ERDF-funded programme; “Scotland’s 8th City – The Smart City”,
- the formation in November of ODIAberdeen as the first node of the Open Data Institute north of the border, and
- beyond Open Data, a recognition that data science has a key role to play in local government, as supported by the recent Improvement Service and NSS collaboration.
In the last year there has been a definite shift from uncoordinated activity happening on a number of fronts to a more joined-up approach, with growing relationships and recognition of how dovetailing activities can be more productive and effective.
So what will 2016 bring?
As part of their participation in the SCA programme, the seven Scottish Cities are each prioritising the publication of open data, and with that the development of a local open data eco-systems. In doing so they will have to consider the broader issue of how data is handled, from their siloed back-office systems, through enterprise-level master data management approaches, to the publication of open data.
Some will start to look at city-region data (no longer focusing solely on local authority data). This view of the city region as an interconnected whole, rather than as seperate bundles of functions and services provided by single entities, is crucial to how we evolve the operation of cities.
For example, in the case of Aberdeen, this will look at the North East of Scotland as a whole and the breadth of service providers who interact across multiple domains: health, transport, community safety, environment, education, energy and others. This also widens the range of open data providers and promises a richer range of data for re-use and experimentation.
The Scottish Government, following its publication of a national Open Data Strategy, is now providing training to local government across Scotland. This is freely available to all 32 councils, not just the seven cities, and to other public sector agencies (as far as I know). Once the training has been delivered in Q1 2016, we can expect to start to see more activity in local government in terms of open data management and publication. This will require co-ordination in each council – which might be challenging for some authorities.
We should reasonably expect a significant ramping-up of data publication, a focus on data quality, a joining up of the whole data management lifecycle and a growing expectation of the availability of data. However, all of this comes at a time of tightening budgets and growing expectation that local authorities do more with the same resources, if not with less. That could prove problematic if the asymmetric relationship of ‘council as producer and developer as consumer’ continues.
So what can the Open Data community in Scotland do to assist local government?
A call to action
There is the opportunity to work with local government and others in building effective local data communities. The seven cities are an obvious starting point for this. Aberdeen already has periodic activity (co-ordinated by CodeTheCity); Edinburgh has Edinburgh Apps challenges; Glasgow, too has had a number of thematic challenges.
What is missing is regular engagement with the SME, developer and citizen communities, and academia, not on a quarterly basis through challenges or sporadic hack weekends, but active meaningful engagement on an ongoing basis.
We need to look at the models in play in Amsterdam, Helsinki and Barcelona in particular and learn from the good ground work that has been done there, what has been effective and what can be improved.
Revisiting the Code For Europe model would also be welcome, with the opportunity to embed independent developers in city hall. This worked well under the short-lived Nesta programme in Scotland, albeit on a small scale, and could with some co-ordination pay dividends again in Scotland in bridging the divide between councils’ in-house ICT teams (and data providers), and the SME community. Similarly, establishing sharing networks across Scotland to promote re-use of code and best practice could pay dividends.
We should also look at the potential to establish physical footprints for local data communities in Scotland. Having focal points in accessible city-centre premises would be very welcome. These could become hubs for service innovation, assist in transferring data science skills into local authorities (and public sector partners) and assist local authorities to focus their efforts on co-creation of service innovations with their communities.
While models for this are not plentiful, some that spring to mind are the WAAG Society’s HQ in Nieuwmarkt Square in Amsterdam, ODI Leeds’s space and the Genius York centre. Each of these have elements that we could adopt and build on.
So, 2016 promises to be a significant year for the expansion of the provision of open data, and related activity, in Scotland. There are many challenges ahead and we should not expect local authorities to address these by themselves. By working together as a data community, aligning activities around co-creation models and sharing openly we can demonstrate that Scotland has the potential to be a world leader in how data is published, used and used to fuel innovation.