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Transparency Team on Tour: How Open Data in Leeds is transforming the city's future

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Local open data has enormous potential. This has been the message from people in many different parts of government and beyond for some time. But in this period of ongoing austerity, where local government is facing significant budget cuts, how and why should publishing (and using) open data feature as a priority?


The city of Leeds is certainly leading the way and much of what it has achieved is readily transferable to other cities willing to take on the challenge. It was our first stop in a series of trips by Cabinet Office to those local areas that are investing in the potential of open data and already seeing the rewards. These rewards range from better budget allocation, increased awareness of citizen demands and stimulating innovation in the business community (to name a few).


The day began with a pretty quick train journey from London. Arriving in Leeds, we were met at the station by the brilliant Leanne Buchan, Principal Officer for Culture and Sport at Leeds City Council, who led us to our first meeting of the day through the torrential rain, navigating both the puddles and sporadic umbrella malfunctions with good humour!


We turned up at the Civic Hall where we had a very warm reception from the Council Leaders: Councillor Keith Wakefield, Leader of Leeds City Council, Councillor Lucinda Yeadon, Executive Member for Digital and Creative Technology, Culture and Skills, Tom Riordan, Council Chief Executive and Dylan Roberts, Council Chief Information Officer. 


The discussion in this meeting was wide-ranging and interesting. It was fantastic to see the level of support there was for open data both politically and operationally. This data savvy at the highest levels in the Council seemed to enable meaningful and trusted partnerships to flourish between the Council and the wider community (business, academia, individuals), leading to others releasing their data openly too. The Council also use this open data to make more informed policy decisions regarding city services, tackling local challenges.


Next on the agenda was a trip to Leeds University to meet with Dr. Roy Ruddle, Director of Research & Innovation at the School of Computing. He gave us the low-down on some newly funded health informatics projects which aimed to make the most of both Leeds University’s expertise and the local advantage of having the major national health bodies housed in Leeds. The aim of the new research will be to link up electronic health records from people who have already agreed to the use of their data for research, with high volume molecular data, such as genome sequences. In addition to this, a retail data centre will seek to merge the potential of retail and health data to see, for example, how retail decisions are affecting health outcomes.


On to lunch at the newly formed ODI node, I believe it is the first (outside London) to have a physical space, and what a lovely space it was.  This is the place that the “in numbers” events take place, the last was "Health in Numbers", with the next one being "Culture in Numbers" due to happen early next year.


During lunch, Dylan Roberts, Leeds City Council CIO, spoke to us about the collaboration between Leeds City Council and the national health bodies (NHS England, Public Health England, HSCIC) endeavouring to position Leeds at the forefront of Health and Wellbeing data innovation. We met with a couple of interesting social entrepreneurs including Victoria Betton, Programme Director at mHealth, an organisation that focuses on the development of digital tools which will improve experiences and outcomes for people accessing health services, particularly for those with mental health issues and long term conditions. 


The final stop of the day was at the Leeds Data Mill. Leeds City Council was recently the recipient of just over £100k of funding from Cabinet Office and BIS. They have put this money to good use by improving the Leeds Data Mill platform, as well as raising awareness in the Leeds community about their work, raising the profile of open data. While anonymised Government data is now published by default on for everyone to use, we were shown how by developing an Open Data platform for Leeds, the Data Mill is seizing the chance to do something unique. They are creating a city-wide culture of data publishing and experimentation, with the shared aim of improving life in the city. With 98 datasets now published, Leeds Data Mill is hoping that stronger local movements will equal stronger local outcomes.


We were told about exciting initiatives such as Leeds Dashboard on which developers can publish widgets using open data to create interesting content developed for the city, by the city. Other examples included the Leeds Art Crawl, through which public art is documented using a twitter location game and the Leeds School of Data, which offers training sessions to those interested in the potential of open data. Above all, the take away point from not only this meeting, but our entire day in Leeds was that the city really is among those leading the way with Open Data and importantly, that much of what it has been achieved is readily transferable to other cities willing to take on the challenge.


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