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Open data is like a box of chocolates

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In November, the Transparency Team continued its tour across the UK with a visit to Cambridgeshire. Cambridgeshire Insight and district councils were recently awarded £122,000 from the Cabinet Office’s Release of Data Fund and they are using it to get data out of local government and into citizens’ hands. The event, Research Manager and ODUG member Hendrik Grothuis explained, “was the first step in thinking about how to do this.”

Mike Soper, the Cambridgeshire Research Manager, met us with a box of chocolates in hand. Ready as we were to declare the chocolates as ‘hospitality received’ in line with the Civil Service Code, they turned out not to be for us. They were in fact a visual metaphor for open data: making data machine-readable helps us sort The Purple Ones from the Orange Crèmes.

As I have said in previous posts, what brings open data to life is how people use it. This day was no different. Starting from the key challenges the community is facing, a range of local partners looked at the data they each hold and the value that it could bring.

Sue Beecroft, Sub-regional Housing Strategy Coordinator, showed how Cambridge is using open data to ensure enough homes are available to low income families. She described how “the proliferation of strategies, reports, and research across the housing sector means that everybody is collecting data,” from regulators and central government to district monitoring systems and businesses. But it was all locked down in PDF documents. The launch of Cambridgeshire Insight – a shared knowledge base for the Cambridgeshire area – presented a ready opportunity to bring those insights together and strengthen partnership working.

They used the platform to pool a web of data that could be re-used in a range of ways. This enabled partners to compare benefit rates and local rents, using open data from the Valuation Office Agency and local sources. By making the data available through interactive maps, they were able to see the impact of changes to local housing allowances at ward level. They are now comparing it with open data on affordable homes from DCLG, to inform their strategic planning and policy-making process.

These benefits were echoed by Mark Braggins, a digital innovator and co-founder of Hampshire Hub. He stressed the importance of open data as a means to “unlock facts and evidence held in different silos, so that better local services can be realised.” This is about delivering real change for people in a frictionless way.

The drive to turn friction into collaboration can be seen in Collusion, an experimental new agency that is building on Cambridge’s indigenous strength as a world leading technology innovation hub. They are working on the city’s ‘wicked’ problems – the ones that seem hardest to solve, such as congestion and pollution. Their Maker Challenge will connect multi-disciplinary teams with a dossier of open data to develop creative ways to transform how people engage with the city.

But it’s not all plain sailing. Participants explained that it often feels like they are ‘going up-river.’ Local Authorities and front-line service providers can feel particularly exposed by open data in the initial stages. Researcher Mark Frank, University of Southampton, has been conducting interviews with a range of local authorities and one officer described it as “a bit like taking your desk…so it is in full visibility of everyone walking past.” The solution, Mark said, is strong leadership, a broad and engaged open data community and a clear sense of the user.

Cambridgeshire has already started working on these solutions. They are investing in training and capacity building for data publishers and consumers so that the county can create an ‘open data centric culture.’ They are curating a library of stories about open data to encourage all to get involved. They are working through the Connecting Cambridgeshire Programme to tackle digital exclusion head-on. And they are asking users what data matters to them, through public consultation.

These efforts are paying off. Cambridgeshire has a strong and active open data community, and they are coalescing around the possibilities open data might bring. We are particularly excited to see which datasets Cambridgeshire identifies as having most value and will be feeding this into the National Information Infrastructure.

*To access slides from the event, check out: ‘Why is open data important for Cambridgeshire?

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  1. Comment by Sue Beecroft posted on

    Just a little footnote on the CLG affordable housing stats - we've used these to release a five-year average, at which helps understanding of longer term housing trends in our area.

    Another example I have been working on, is using a Homes and Communities Agency return to create a list of housing providers who own and manage housing in our area, at - with a supporting data story at and a text version including links to providers websites at

    Hoping this range of formats and approaches will appeal to a wide range of partners and help publicise the presence, role and activities of affordable housing providers in local communities. The are two examples of "early steps" to his rather lofty goal!

    Any feedback or thoughts on how we've been using national data to help inform local partners would be most welcome.