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Digital Leader - Sudip Trivedi on Camden Council’s Open Data Drive

Nicola Brittain Profile picture for user Nicola Brittain March 22, 2017
Summary:
Camden Council's open data initiatives have helped boost services for residents and is considering how to monetize the data.

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The drive towards using data for the public good has been a feature of local government for some time now,  and head of data and analytics for Camden council, Sudip Trivedi, is one committed exponent of this. Since releasing its open data charter in November 2015, the council has released 300 sets of data.

Trivedi explained that the catalyst for Camden to make this move was a local government transparency code released in May 2015. The code encouraged people in the council to think about open data generally, but in Trivedi’s opinion, did not go far enough.

He said:

The paper required local government to publish more than it had in the past. It opened things up a bit but didn’t describe the process by which this needed to be done. We decided that we needed to do the work ourselves.

The project was backed by Theo Blackwell, local cabinet member for finance, technology and growth, and has had momentum ever since. The council agreed to invest in a platform called Socrata which allows it to show data to different recipients in different formats. Socrata is used widely in the US, by New York City as well as many American states including California, Delaware and Illinois.

There was no start-up cost for Socrata, but the council pays an ongoing license and employs one person in house to run it. The platform currently hosts all 300 datasets, and the council is looking to move many more onto the system.

If commercial developers want to use the Socrata platform, they will be directed to API cores and fed information automatically. It also allows users and residents to see information in the format of their choice. The most popular datasets for residents currently are details of parking fines, planning applications, and information about trees in the borough.

The open data initiative aims to serve three purposes. Improve the lives of citizens, benefit the council, and boosting local business and the wider economy with app developers using the data to create and sell applications.

The council

The council has benefited from the release of data because it has seen a reduction in FOI requests and consequently, a reduction in related costs. Trivedi also explained that although the council is not yet monetising its own data, this is an area it plans to investigate.

Like all other councils we’ve had our budgets cut and so any increase in income is appealing to us.

The council also upgraded its data and analytics in 2013, and implemented a business intelligence platform Qlikview in 2014. Camden council staff of all levels of seniority are currently using 70 Qlikview business dashboards to help them analyse data with a view to improving services, it also helps the council make decisions as well as predict the outcome of initiatives.

Residents

Camden council’s open data drive has also helped it boost services to residents. One successful initiative has been the creation of a Residents Index – with help from IBM Business Partners SCISYS and Entity Group. The Index creates a single view of a resident from 16 different services, and shares this across the council. The benefits include use of this for fraud reduction around tenancies – this will have saved the council considerable sums of money.

Another benefit of the index has been its ability to identify potential but unregistered voters and encourage them to register. As such Camden currently has one of the most accurate electoral rolls in London. Camden has also been able to identify fraudulent applicants for school places, ensuring these go to those who are entitled to them.

In addition, this joined-up view of data also allows the application of predictive analytics which can feed into preventative measures around health or transport for example.

The wider economy

The council aims to work closely with application developers, and is running its first open data challenge this week. Some 100 developers signed up to the event. They will be challenged to develop apps around schools waiting lists (these should help parents keep track of their child’s status on the waiting list for Camden schools); apps that will help prospective council tenants understand the bidding process for council housing; and finally apps around the theme of ‘my local area’ – helping residents keep up to date with planning, parking, licensing and streetworks in their neighbourhood.

Governance

Information governance is a big issue for Camden, and although Trivedi is committed to open data he explained that it is a difficult area:

There just aren’t enough guidelines around how best to share information with health and social care bodies. And the rules need to be different according to whether data is for the general public or being shared between services.

But it isn’t just data governance that is a problem when sharing data. The council has also had issues around the quality of its data. Some hasn’t been of a high enough quality to publish automatically, and a number of the transparency code datasets require line by line checking before publication.

Trivedi said:

We have to ensure that any operational gaps are filled. If we don’t have the data recorded people need to fill these in manually. We also need to create a system that spots gaps. Although this is laborious and challenging in terms of technology and our capabilities, it has prompted us to improve our data-collection services.

Second, data protection is an issue. The organisation is risk-averse regarding release of data even when there is a statutory requirement to publish it (for example, it is very careful when publishing landlords’ names on the HMO (houses in multiple occupation) register. Personal information must be omitted and jigsaw identification, where the data could be combined with other sources to identify people, can be a risk.

However, as Trivedi explains there are ways to publish data with a personal dimension without compromising privacy. Suppressing specific fields is one, and this is currently done around data housing stock data (individual addresses are withheld).

Reputational risk is another issue of which the council must be mindful. Open data can cover sensitive topics and publishing it means the public can do their own analysis. This was a very real concern for parking fine data (where certain types of car were targeted more than others) but fortunately there have been no repercussions, according to Trivedi.

Third, it can be difficult to demonstrate the benefits of making data available. As such, in some cases, open data is not the right way to go, according to Trivedi. Although a lot of work was done to prepare building control data for publication, ultimately the project was dropped because the council decided it was too commercially sensitive (and would reveal business critical information about private-sector building companies).

Finally, it can be hard to obtain authorisation to publish open data either because it is unclear who ‘owns’ the data (for example around housing stock) or because data is not seen as an important issue.
Despite these hurdles, Camden has made a name for itself as a torch bearer for the open data movement and it has done this in partnership with many other bodies. It hosts the Local Digital Coalition which aims to improve innovation between authorities. It also works closely with the clinical commission and group health partners. Similarly, it is piloting work with the London Office of Data analytics, a group that is performing analytics on datasets sourced from multiple local authorities and public sector bodies.

In addition, as Trivedi explains the council is always looking for further partnerships and is closely watching other organisations do similar work.

He says:

Bath Council got a great deal of recognition for their Bath Hacked focus programme. Similarly, Leeds have the Open Data Mill, a data sharing website for councils in the north.  These are impressive projects. However, one thing that sets us apart is that most council projects are commissioned or externally funded, while we are doing the work off our own back.

Our take

Camden is one of many councils that has made data available to the public and local business, and although the benefits are already evident there will likely be further, as yet unknown, benefits to public health and the wider economy that come from analysis of this data. It will be interesting to see if the council can begin to monetise its data. This is another potentially interesting avenue for cash-strapped but technologically savvy councils.

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