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.”

 

 
 
 
 

What do new business rates pilots tell us about government’s appetite for devolution?

Sheffield Town Hall, 1897. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

There have been big question marks about any future devolution of business rates ever since the last general election stopped the legislation in its tracks.

Not only did it not make its way to the statute book before the pre-election cut off, it was nowhere to be seen in the Queen’s Speech, suggesting the Government had gone cold on the idea. (This scenario was complicated further recently by the introduction of a private members’ bill on business rates by Conservative MP Peter Bone, details of which remain scarce.)

However, regardless of the situation with legislation, the government’s announcement in recent days of a pilot phase of reforms suggests that business rates devolution will go ahead after all. DCLG has invited local authorities to take part in a pilot scheme which will allow volunteer authorities to retain 100 per cent of the business rates growth they generate locally. (It also notes that a further three pilots are currently in operation as they were set up under the last government.)

There are two interesting things in this announcement that give some insight on how the government would like to push the reform forward.

The first is that only authorities that come forward with their neighbours with a proposal to pool all business rates raised into one pot across a wider geography will be considered. This suggests that pooling is likely to be strongly encouraged under the new system, even more considering that the initial position was to give power to the Secretary of State to form pools unilaterally.

The second is that pooled authorities are given free rein to propose their own local arrangements. This includes determining, where applicable, a tier split (i.e. rates distribution between districts and counties), a plan for distributing additional growth across the pool, and how this will be managed between authorities.

It’s the second which is most interesting. Although current pools already have the ability to decide for some of their arrangements, it’s fair to say that the Theresa May-led government has been much less bullish on devolution than George Osborne in particular was, with policies having a much greater ‘top down’ feel to them (for example, the Industrial Strategy) rather than a move towards giving places the tools they need to support economic growth in their areas. So the decision to allow local authorities to come up with proposed arrangements feels like a change in approach from the centre.


Of course, the point of a pilot is to test different arrangements, and the outcomes of this experiment will be used to shape any future reform of the business rates system. Given the complexity of the system and the multitude of options for reform, this seems like a sensible approach to take. But it remains to be seen whether the complex reform of a national system can be led from the bottom up. In effect, making sure this local governance is driven by common growth objectives, rather than individual authorities’ interests, will be essential.

Nonetheless, the government’s reaffirmation of its commitment to business rates to devolution and its willingness to test new approaches is welcome. Given that the UK is one of the most centralised countries in the western world, moves to allow local authorities to keep at least some of the tax revenue that is generated in their area is a step forward in giving places more autonomy over how they spend their money. That interest in changing this appears to have been whetted once more is encouraging.

There are, however, a number of other issues with the current business rates system which need to be ironed out. Centre for Cities is currently working on a briefing of the business rates system, building on our previous work in this area, and we’ll be making suggestions as to how the system can be improved.

Hugo Bessis is a researcher for the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article originally appeared.

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