Bath: Hacked Draws on the Community and Open Data to Conserve Energy in Schools

Customer: Bath & North East Somerset Council

Imagine a local government whose data is so accessible that the datastore is run by the community, instead of the municipality. That openness is exactly what is happening among the rolling hills and historic towns of Bath & North East Somerset (BANES). The result has been huge levels of citizen engagement, including a recent community-driven effort to reduce energy usage — and its associated costs — in local schools.

The Birth of a Community-Led Open Data Program

When Bath and North East Somerset Council wanted to launch an open data program, it recognized a shortfall of internal knowledge. Rather than taking a top-down approach, the council turned to the local developer community for advice and insight. “We’ve looked to the community for leadership and management,” says Jon Poole, Research & Intelligence Manager at the Council.

In 2013, the council reached out to Bath-area developers, and from those first conversations, a public-private collaboration called Bath: Hacked was born. The group includes both council and community members, a combination which has paid large dividends for the open data movement in BANES. “The magic is we had two willing parties from the get go,” says Richard Speigal, a local software developer and Bath: Hacked organizer. “The local authority clearly had a positive attitude about open data. And the developer community was committed and interested in making data available.”

The first efforts of Bath: Hacked yielded an open data hack night, engaging even more members of the developer community. The inaugural event was a success, but it also made it clear that Bath: Hacked had hit its data sharing limits: Data was “just popped up onto a website as unstructured CSV files,” Poole admits, adding that this method worked in a pinch, but was not sustainable. “CSV files were fine for super-skilled people, but it just wasn’t overall useful. We weren’t going to get to a finished product that way,” says Speigal.

A Long-Lasting Partnership with Socrata

It was clear early on that Bath: Hacked required a data portal that could support the needs of both the council and the community, says Leigh Dodds, who took over as the Chair of Bath: Hacked in 2014. He helped formalize the organization’s structure, and lead the charge to include the whole community in projects — and not just the more tech-minded citizens. “But as a volunteer group, we were wary of setting up something ourselves,” says Dodds.

The question wasn’t if Bath: Hacked could set up a data portal on its own — given the strong tech background of volunteers, there was no question it was a doable task. Maintaining a portal, however, wasn’t necessarily the best use of time for Bath: Hacked. “None of us were really signing up to run a portal or large database — we didn’t want to spend time maintaining a piece of infrastructure,” says Dodds. “We’ve got some quite talented people in group who could have quite happily built the infrastructure. Building it isn’t the issue — that’s trivial compared to ongoing maintenance & support. We wanted to keep our focus on what we could create using the data.”

Soon after the first hack night, the Bath: Hacked team met with Socrata. “When Socrata showed us what they could do, our eyes just about popped,” recollects Speigal. “The datastore they’ve built for us has solved so many problems and gotten the community really excited by all the possibilities. If this process had been driven by council, it would have been much more complicated, but Socrata made everything go quickly and easily.”

Delivery and implementation was speedy, too. “Socrata’s ability to offer something meaningful to the community in a short time was amazing,” recalls Poole. “In March, we had nothing. We met Socrata in mid-June and by August 14th, the datastore was up and running. That turnaround time stirred positive interest and support from the council and helped us start thinking about what to do next with open data.”

Several years have passed since that initial launch, and Bath: Hacked continues to have a positive experience with the Socrata portal. “We rely on Socrata. It’s really hit the spot of being a service we can rely on, and one that’s helping us deliver on our mission,” says Dodds. “The fact that it offers a range of functionality in terms of access and visualization of data is important because we wanted to have something that was going to deliver value to more than just the technical people in community. So the ability to just actually see the data and create simple visualizations is important because it’s helped breathe some life into the data.”

Dodds also points to Socrata’s ongoing improvements in functionality and performance improvement as benefits of choosing a hosted service, rather than building one independently. “We benefit from Socrata’s investment in the product,” says Dodds. In particular, he points to the new homepage which helps surface documentation around data and recent large-scale updates to the platform, which have improved performance and scalability.

From Prototype to an Energy Conservation App

After hosting many traditional hack days, Bath: Hacked was eager to try something new, and get even more value from the events. They shifted the framework: Instead of focusing on a weekend event, full of people hunched over computers seeking to create an app, they ran evening meet-ups in the weeks leading up to a February 2016 hack night. Bath: Hacked invited the whole community — including local developers, environmental groups, and other engaged citizens — to share their thoughts around local environmental concerns. Having a theme and a long-term project, along with getting a diverse group of people involved, paid off. There were greater levels of participation and, in these lead-up events, participants identified datasets that should be released (including a key sample dataset on school energy usage), as well as targeted questions to bring to the developers at the event.

At the February 2016 hack night, a new prototype application was built that shared local school's energy usage. “As a demonstration of the benefits of analysing this data the developers were able to show a potential £24,000 a year cost saving for the council by simply changing the type of light bulbs in the central library,” reads a post-event write-up. The prototype opened up a new world of possibilities for Bath: Hacked, says Dodds. “We were able to convince the council to open up data on energy usage on a regular basis” as opposed to the one-time release that had enabled the creation of the hack night application. Bath: Hacked also used the prototype to look for funding sources, and transform it into a service that could be used community-wide.

In September 2016, along with the council and Transition Bath, an environmental group, Bath: Hacked won a £7,000 grant from the Open Data Institute to cover the development of the Energy Sparks website. The site has a two-pronged goal of teaching kids about energy usage, and looking at ways to reduce that usage in schools. Using very simple tools — such as spreadsheets — one school was able to reduce gas usage by forty percent and electricity by 20 percent. So, the potential for schools to reduce energy usage is high, since often the heat is left on too long (after schools are closed, for instance) or is set too high. With Energy Sparks, monitoring, and then changing, usage habits will be far easier.

Six schools are enrolled so far and, through the Energy Sparks site, you can see daily and weekly electricity usage, with the day where the most energy is used called out. “The schools are heavily invested in making the program work,” says Dodds. “This program can potentially result in massive savings.”

Duplicating Bath: Hacked’s Results

Energy Sparks is just one of many projects for Bath: Hacked. The group is also mapping wheelchair-accessible spaces in Bath, digging into home prices, showcasing restaurant inspection data, and much more. This explosion of projects, and community engagement with using data for the public good, is extraordinary — but that doesn’t mean it’s unique to the area or can’t be duplicated by other cities and communities.

Dodds suggests that people think beyond hack days and one-off events and put a priority on continuity. “The model we’re using is to extend hack days and get people involved more deeply beforehand,” says Dodds, who points out other similar citizen-led projects in Bristol and Leeds. Along with extending occasional nights to long-term initiatives, Dodds suggests that “these things work best when the council is partnered with someone outside of the organization. This helps challenge the council on how they work, provides insight into which data will be useful, and helps get the local community engaged.”

Overall, both the council and Bath: Hacked agree that the data should be both widely available, and put to work. “It’s not about complicated algorithms, it’s about opening up information between everyone,” says Dodds. Poole, the council’s Research and Intelligence Manager, agrees, commenting “ The proudest bit is that the council doesn’t have a datastore. The council contributes to it, but it is everyone’s. This data truly belongs to the citizens of Bath and North East Somerset.”