Digitizing Sheffield Through Open Data

Customer: Sheffield, United Kingdom | Site: Sheffield City Council Open Data

Sheffield is a thriving commercial center in northern England. Life was not always so idyllic: industrial decline led to significant economic migration out of the city between 1981 and 2001. However, Sheffield successfully fought back, creating new businesses and employment opportunities. Today it is a Core City, one of the UK’s eight leading cities committed to enhancing economic performance and making their cities better places to live, work, visit and do business.

To ensure the continuation of its economic growth, Sheffield developed an open data portal and became the largest UK city to purposefully digitize its services and better engage residents in their community.

Key Considerations for Sheffield’s Open Data Initiative

The existing Sheffield City Council (SCC) website did not allow the community to actively participate and the workflow for uploading datasets was cumbersome. The Council needed an open data strategy that would address these challenges, as well as meet Transparency Code and Core City requirements.

SCC also wanted to incorporate key principles such as accountability; meeting Freedom of Information Act (FOI) requirements; increasing productivity through more effective use of limited resources; and delivering quality, outcome-oriented services. There was a drive too for stronger data-driven decisions and a single tool that would connect initiatives around internal change, consultation with the public, and business intelligence.

As a new direction for the Council, open data necessitated changes in work culture. Some service areas were already proficient in creating datasets, whereas others were not as familiar with manipulating data and had been providing information in PDF documents. A few service providers had questions about making data available to the public, monitoring data quality, and charging for datasets or offering them for free.

The stakeholders for this initiative included Council members, the Council’s Chief Executive, service managers, public sector partners, local businesses, key consultation and communication leads, the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Department of Business Innovation and Skills, and the other seven Core Cities.

Planning the Open Data Implementation

In its search to provide data in a way that was intuitive and engaging, “We also wanted to be thinking creatively about how open data can help achieve our vision of being a more innovative council,” says John Curtis, SCC’s Head of Information and Knowledge Management.

However, the Council lacked the in-house developers, technology platform, and knowledge to make data accessible. They needed a solution that was ready to go, right out of the box. Fortunately, their Microsoft partner suggested and paid for an open data platform pilot with Socrata. Additional support came in the form of executive management team leadership and a Council member who acted as open data champion.

Creative Implementation Tools

The event “Making a Difference with Data” brought together 100 public service and business managers, data innovators and academics to present plans for the open data portal, discuss how Sheffield could use data to improve service delivery, and give stakeholders the opportunity to experience the potential of open data for themselves. At the event John Mothersole, Chief Executive of Sheffield City Council, said of the open data initiative, “Public service in this country is at a profound turning point, and there’s broad permission to change things now. I’m hoping my colleagues will leave this event with that permission rekindled, and with a deeper knowledge and recognition that this is a good thing to do.” (View the video documenting the event.)

To help overcome the data and usability challenges, a council-wide open data working group was established. In its internal communications, the Council emphasised the positive impact of the open data program, reinforcing the public’s right to data under FOI, promoting the concept that data quality can be improved by sharing it, and advocating for making data freely available in order to help improve the services the council provides.

To provide a better user experience and ensure data was as robust as possible, the Council engaged the public in manipulating, analysing and providing feedback on existing data, and contributing additional data.  “A consumer is only going to go to a site that’s easy to use,” says Curtis. “It isn’t until the data is seen and used by others that you get value out of it.”

Service area workshops were developed as a starting point for engaging stakeholders, including the general public. The first set of workshops aligned with Air Quality+, a joint project with the Better With Data group (who contributed to the Council’s open data development) and which received Local Government funding. The outcomes from the workshops — which brought together citizens, businesses, the local authority, other public sector bodies, contractors, universities, community organisations, activists, and technologists to create a data-driven ambition and datasets for air quality in Sheffield - were impressive. The resulting Sheffield AirMap provides data information within the Air Quality Management area in real-time, increases awareness and promotes activities that contribute to better air quality and environmental efficiency. The map is the first of its kind and is highly regarded throughout the UK Air Quality community.

A Model for Excellence

Datasets went live on data.sheffield.gov.uk at the end of February 2015. “Having the Socrata platform means we can provide different datasets and this will lead to more effective and efficient services areas, as well as improved performance and productivity by the Council,” says Curtis.

Engagement with both consumers and data publishers was key throughout the planning and implementation phases. A range of activities helped connect people with the newly open data and got people working together across disciplines and communities. Says Curtis, “The Air Quality+ project is a great example of how focusing on a specific issue can get people interested in open data and help the Council realise its goals.”

Positive Results

The portal is a hit with staff, who were impressed with the quality and depth of training and customer support from Socrata, especially in providing guidance on how to label datasets. With additional coaching from Curtis, open data novices were excited to upload their own datasets, and their concerns about how resource-intensive open data would be and whether it would really add value were quickly reduced.

Service groups across the Council are now empowered to publish datasets that they can manage effectively themselves, which means they can better use their limited resources to deliver quality services. It is easier for staff to obtain and manipulate data, and combine public and private data (e.g. around transport or parking) to make that data even more dynamic.  Results for data requests are more timely, the data only needs to be released once, and previously separate datasets can now be linked together.

FOI staff need only signpost the information or send a link which takes just a few minutes instead of the 20 working days allowed under FOI. Open data further supports FOI requirements by adding more information and reducing misinterpretation.

With the ability to search for information about neighborhoods and demographics, local entrepreneurs find the portal useful in planning for growth. And members of the public are pleased to access data that helps them make voting, consumer and lifestyle decisions.

Says Curtis, “Initial assessments of how people use the portal show that linking data with decision-making provides cash and non-cash savings.” He is convinced that, “Better services from better use of data leads to better outcomes for individuals, and more cost-effective services.”

Looking to the Future

The open data initiative has proved to be a key element of the council’s business intelligence strategy, facilitating data driven decision-making by both customers and SCC officers. “Freeing Sheffield’s data enables us to make more evidence-based decisions, engage residents more richly in the operation of their city, and enhance the democratic process,” says Curtis.

The portal is uniting information providers and consumers and enabling community members to become part of the solution. They might see a pattern (for example, graffiti) and engage with the council to address that pattern. “We have already seen the potential of working cooperatively with the public through Air Quality+,” says Curtis. Building on this success, the Council intends to support other areas of public service reform in future months.

Testing and piloting the use of open data also ensures that Sheffield will be added to the list of Smart Cities. These are cities that which enable businesses to plan efficient routes to transport goods, local authorities to create effective public health services, and the public to access real time data so they can plan their daily activities.

Sheffield City Council’s vision of using open data to drive better and more cost-effective services is quickly becoming a reality. The Council’s experience and success with open data shows why Sheffield is a model city of economic performance and citizen experience.