What has open council data ever done for us?

Explore England: an example of what you can do with the data. Image: Illustreets.

It’s been nearly a year since Eric Pickles, the UK’s Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government issued a policy statement  requesting that local councils open up their data to the public.  

Since then, progress has been slow – but there has been progress. A number of cities (Manchester, Leeds, Cambridge, London) have published open data sets. But without a common access point, or a declaration of available data like the Open Data Census in the US, it’s hard to know how many.

The big question now is: is transparency enough?

Boris Johnson thinks so. In October this year, London’s mayor, a keen advocate of municipal open data, launched London’s second data store. At the time, he said it would provide “a wealth of material that the world's brightest minds will be able to use to develop new insight and apps that can be used to solve the big city problems”. The inference is that if you open the data the developers will come.

Perhaps he is right: London’s first open data store gave rise to the increasingly popular Citymapper app that now covers 13 cities in Europe, the US and South America.

Once upon a time such complex problem solving would be the domain of the sort of people who broke the Enigma code. Today, though, there are businesses, organisations and local hacking groups of all sizes answering the call and pouring over these now freely available local data sets. Civic hacking nights or hackathons –lots of very clever techy people eating pizza and drinking sugar, while building local apps and data visualisation tools – were born in US cities such as San Francisco and Chicago. But they’re established in parts of the UK, too.

According to Tom Cheesewright, a technology futurologist for Book of the Future, this is inevitable given the nature of raw data. “Who other than engaged city-hacker types are going to make use of the data unless it is expressed in a form that is valuable?” he asks. “Without that the data is pretty exclusive, restricted to council managers and those with the technical knowledge or financial interest in doing something with it.”

There’s a disconnect here. The coalition is encouraging councils to be transparent and accountable and publish open data. And yet, the majority of residents, almost by definition, can’t spend their time pouring over these raw data sets.

“It absolutely is too technical,” says Richard Speigal, chair of independent community group Bath Hacked, whose goal is to translate raw data into useable local apps and web sites. Unlike its equivalents in many other regions, Bath Hacked actually owns the data store, and works closely with the Bath & Northeast Somerset authority. This relationship, argues Spiegal, that gives the local council a bit more perspective on what residents actually want from the data.

“We’ve kept our feet on the ground, worked hard to establish strong community links, used a data store that's open to non-developers and also include a learning track in our events,” he adds. “This has given rise to hugely popular, very simple local tools with tangible benefits: Bathonians can now find a parking spacea place to not get poisoned, see air quality throb or explore their city through the ages. A local startup has already increased sales with open data.”

It’s the sort of return Boris Johnson would be proud of: no one seems to be doing more than Bath Hacked. But where is the value? It costs money to install data stores, and pay staff to release and manage open data sets. Sometimes, the costs run into seven figures. So where’s the return on investment?

 “Quantifying the [return on] civic open data is inherently difficult,” says data expert and evangelist Owen Boswarva. “Personally I'm comfortable that taxpayers are getting value for money from open data, even if the evidence base is a bit amorphous. It's hard to isolate the effects of open data on growth and efficiency within a city economy, but that's equally true of many other policies and inputs.”

For the moment, frontline apps and visualisation services are acting as a shop window. “The area in which open data has most economic potential is location intelligence,” argues Boswarva. “Addressing, geolocation, maps and so on. Local authorities have numerous datasets of this type but are unable to release them as open data because they contain information derived from Ordnance Survey's detailed mapping and address datasets.”

The solution? “We need government to release those key national datasets as open data so that cities can in turn release the local datasets that derive from them.”

It’s worth mentioning a few examples. The London School Atlas is useful for parents but incomplete. While it maps schools, it says little about school attainment – which is, one assumes, what parents really want to know. A standard of living app analysing local areas for crime rates, house prices and amenities, such as illustreets’ Explore England, has obvious value, particularly if you are looking for a new place to live.

There is also live data on river levels, such as The Gauge Map from Shoothill: handy for knowing when to get out the sandbags. In the US there is even a dangerous dogs map in Austin Texas. The only limit, it seems, is imagination.

This whole process is forcing local authorities to change their mindsets – but whether it’ll make them more accountable is not exactly clear.

“It won't happen until local authorities have a mature open data policy, rich data platforms and an engaged community who are prepared to delve into the data,” says Speigal at Bath Hacked. “We concentrate on patiently building the component parts, confident that transparency will come. But to say it happens quickly would be lying. It’ll take years.”

 

 
 
 
 

Two east London boroughs are planning to tax nightlife to fund the clean up. Will it work?

A Shoreditch rave, 2013. Image: Getty.

No-one likes cleaning up after a party, but someone’s got to do it. On a city-wide scale, that job falls to the local authority. But that still leaves the question: who pays?

In east London, the number of bars and clubs has increased dramatically in recent years. The thriving club scene has come with benefits – but also a price tag for the morning clean-up and cost of policing. The boroughs of Hackney and Tower Hamlets are now looking to nightlife venues to cover these costs.

Back in 2012, councils were given powers to introduce ‘late night levies’: essentially a tax on all the licensed venues that open between midnight and 6am. The amount venues are expected to pay is based on the premises’ rateable value. Seventy per cent of any money raised goes to the police and the council keeps the rest.

Few councils took up the offer. Four years after the legislation was introduced, only eight local authorities had introduced a levy, including Southampton, Nottingham, and Cheltenham. Three of the levies were in the capital, including Camden and Islington. The most lucrative was in the City of London, where £420,000 was raised in the 2015-16 financial year.

Even in places where levies have been introduced, they haven’t always had the desired effect. Nottingham adopted a late night levy in November 2014. Last year, it emerged that the tax had raised £150,000 less than expected in its first year. Only a few months before, Cheltenham scrapped its levy after it similarly failed to meet expectations.


Last year, the House of Lords committee published its review of the 2003 Licensing Act. The committee found that “hardly any respondents believed that late night levies were currently working as they should be” – and councils reported that the obligation to pass revenues from the levy to the police had made the tax unappealing. Concluding its findings on the late night levy, the committee said: “We believe on balance that it has failed to achieve its objectives, and should be abolished.”

As might be expected of a nightlife tax, late night levies are also vociferously opposed by the hospitality industry. Commenting on the proposed levy in Tower Hamlets, Brigid Simmonds, chief executive at the British Beer and Pub Association, said: “A levy would represent a damaging new tax – it is the wrong approach. The focus should be on partnership working, with the police and local business, to address any issues in the night time economy.”

Nevertheless, boroughs in east London are pressing ahead with their plans. Tower Hamlets was recently forced to restart a consultation on its late night levy after a first attempt was the subject of a successful legal challenge by the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR). Kate Nicholls, chief executive at the ALMR, said:

“We will continue to oppose these measures wherever they are considered in any part of the UK and will urge local authorities’ to work with businesses, not against them, to find solutions to any issues they may have.”

Meanwhile, Hackney council intends to introduce a levy after a consultation which revealed 52 per cents of respondents were in favour of the plans. Announcing the consultation in February, licensing chair Emma Plouviez said:

“With ever-shrinking budgets, we need to find a way to ensure the our nightlife can continue to operate safely, so we’re considering looking to these businesses for a contribution towards making sure their customers can enjoy a safe night out and their neighbours and surrounding community doesn’t suffer.”

With budgets stretched, it’s inevitable that councils will seek to take advantage of any source of income they can. Nevertheless, earlier examples of the late night levy suggest this nightlife tax is unlikely to prove as lucrative as is hoped. Even if it does, should we expect nightlife venues to plug the gap left by public sector cuts?