Camden Council is using open data to boost public sector innovation

SUMMARY:

Creative platforms and developer challenges are helping to create benefits for citizens in Camden.

 

The clamour for digital transformation means executives in both the public and private sectors are encouraged to use creative methods, such as hackathons and cross-organisation partnerships, to foster innovation.

Omid Shiraji, interim CIO at Camden Council, is one IT leader who is taking a pioneering approach, opening the organisation’s data platform and encouraging local development talent to generate innovative ideas.

Camden recently launched an open data challenge that allows talented IT professionals to help the council make the most of its information. More than 100 coders, developers, designers and programmers registered for the council’s first challenge which began at the end of March. Shiraji says developers in the community are being encouraged to investigate challenges and potential solutions in key areas, such as housing and school waiting lists:

There’s a whole bunch of challenges in an organisation as complex as a council that we can’t solve ourselves. Inviting the wider community to help us do that helps me, as the CIO, to tackle issues that might otherwise be beyond my compass. It also helps boost partnerships between my team, the wider organisation and the community. That plus-point might be intangible but the benefits are potentially strong.

Building a platform for data-led change

The open data challenge is the latest stage in a continued effort from Shiraji and his colleagues to create an open data platform that council leaders hope will provide long-term benefits to both the organisation and the citizens it serves. The platform, which has been in beta status for the past 18 months, was also launched publicly at the end of March.

The platform contains more than 300 datasets across a range of council domains, including up-to-date information on everything from parking bays and planning applications to housing stock and road accidents. Residents, businesses and community groups and can access the data online.

The Camden Open Data site, which is the public face of the platform, has had 1.7 million page views since it was first trialled in 2015. Shiraji says the platform has already provided benefits for both the council internally and its residents, particularly around the quality and use of data:

One of the key benefits of the approach is that we make the council more aware of the role of data. By doing this, we improve the organisation’s knowledge about opening data to the wider community. It creates a buzz and advocacy around data.

Shiraji says the open approach is helping the council to develop a mature approach to information management. He and his colleagues used the beta testing phase of the open data platform to develop several services. Shiraji points, for example, to a new online planning service that draws information from the open data platform.

Residents can now sign up and receive instant notification of local planning alerts by e-mail. Citizens can also add planning applications online. Estimates suggest the new online service has helped create £200,000 savings by reducing the number of letters the council sends to residents about planning applications.

The platform is also being used to help organisations in the local area create new business models. Shiraji refers to start-up Appy Parking, which uses the open data platform to publish information on publicly-funded parking spaces across the London borough. The start-up’s app uses geo-location data to tell users when and where they can park.

Creating lasting benefits for the community

Shiraji expects further innovative developments to bubble up through the open data challenge. Camden wants to avoid stifling creativity and is keen to hear novel ways the community can make the most of open datasets. Shiraji says the aim is to create prototype projects through the rest of 2017 and to create a long-term framework for community-led development:

What I hope is that this challenge turns into an ongoing relationship with the developer community and is a catalyst for the council to continue to release and open up its datasets across a range of systems. I want to help us to create new value for our citizens from the data that we already hold. I’d love for us to get to a position where the community starts demanding data in such a way that our IT teams go back into the organisation and help parts of the council to open more data to the wider public.

The result of the initiative should be better services for citizens. However, the project is not just valuable for the council and its residents. Shiraji says developers who take part in the project benefit in several ways, too:

There’s a social responsibility – people can use their skills, and the data that Camden offers, to create some socially-beneficial applications. As we get further into the initiative, some of the challenges will be quite difficult and allow people to test their skills competitively. There will also be an opportunity for those who are really innovative to think about new business models and how to develop and then monetise commercial applications.

Camden’s open approach to data provides lessons for other CIOs. Shiraji says IT leaders looking to create a similar approach should reach out to peers in related organisations. He spent six months, prior to the launch of the platform and the challenge, building relationships with IT leaders.

These interactions included conversations with technology executives at other data-led organisations, including Transport for London, the Metropolitan Police and The Guardian. Shiraji has also spent time engaging with the Open Data Institute and academic institutions, particularly University College London.

He says this peer network has provided invaluable support in terms of links to the wider development community. And Shiraji is very hopeful when it comes to the long-term benefits associated to an open and cross-organisation approach to data and innovation:

I’d love us to have data partnerships and create a coalition across public services to share data. That’s a much bigger dream. But if you can join up data from local authorities, police services, healthcare organisations and transport bodies, you can suddenly think about how you can fundamentally re-engineer public services. And that’s where things get really exciting.

My take

Camden’s pioneering approach shows openness can provide significant benefits, not just for public sector organisations and their customers, but also local businesses and IT professionals. The long-term aim must be for even more cross-organisation partnerships that can help public sector CIOs turn information into insight.

Image credit - Pinterest