An open data hack where context is key

Written by: Data Mill North, 09/03/2014

At Leeds Data Mill our goal is to create the first comprehensive repository of open data sets for the city that is available for everyone to use. This includes data from healthcare, heritage, culture, transport, education and many other sources.

As a team we took a decision early on to have a dual focus – to create a resource and workflow that enables private and public sector organisations to share as much data as possible in open formats; and secondly to involve the citizens of Leeds to define a vision for future services and solutions that use open data.

The decision to develop a framework that enables city-wide participation has helped us take a step back from the project and ask some important questions:

What is the “big picture” here?

From an operational perspective we have a clear vision – Leeds Data Mill is a platform for private and public sector organisations to publish their open data sets online. In the short-term our goal is to be the first city in the UK to have the largest number of data sets available online. (At the moment we have 50+ data sets that are available to everyone to define ideas, conceive solutions and prototype services that can improve the quality of life in Leeds.)

This is all well and good, but then we also asked ourselves:

Why should people care?

This is when you move away from crisp, concise goals with clearly defined milestones. Open data as a concept, has been around for a while, but it has only become part of mainstream discourse in the last couple of years.

At this point in time, there are many different perceptions of what open data is, and why it can be a useful resource. Furthermore, open data is also talked about in the context of a future narrative – i.e. imagined possibilities and perceived benefits.

So, to go back to our question –
Why should people care about a future narrative?

Our approach is to build a clear case for collaboration to define this future narrative. If we are all part of it, there is a greater probability we will care.

In practice, this means we’ve had to define a dual identity for Leeds Data Mill. In the virtual context it is a digital resource that hosts open data sets. But Leeds Data Mill also has a physical identity. It is a space for people to define genuine problems and use their intuition as a scaffolding to arrive at a solution where open data can play a clear role.

We’ve spent the last three months to realise this goal through a series of events. Every Leeds Data Mill event is an opportunity for participants to learn and explore new concepts; every event encourages participants to think their world out loud in the presence of people who come from different backgrounds and skills; and most importantly, every event is a neutral space for people to challenge ideas and approaches of how we should be using open data.

The first event we conceived and ran along these lines was Culture in Numbers at The Tetley on February 25. It was a full day event. In the morning we invited a range of speakers to introduce their experiments and projects with open data. This included speakers from the V&A, Northern Ballet as well as independent practitioners. In the afternoon, we workshopped ideas of how open data can help us share evidence based narratives. The group included culture and heritage practitioners as well as open data experts. An interesting observation from the day was that the group wasn’t too keen on just exploring fear-based narratives and worst case scenarios. They just wanted to get on and do things.

And so we did.

What happens when context is key?

At the time of writing this post, we are on day 2 of a hack event, which is being held at Leeds City Museum. There are 5 interdisciplinary groups working very hard to turn a concept into a working prototype.

Every group more or less includes a technical expert, a designer and a service user or provider. They had to choose one of 5 challenges that were presented at the start of the event. It has been fascinating to see how these interdisciplinary groups developed ideas on the first day of the hack. Technology was the starting point, but the need for context quickly emerged as the key in cracking the challenges.
Here is a snapshot of the concepts being worked on:

Lonely Bird (pictured at the start of this post) will visualise public health funeral data to highlight the levels of loneliness across Leeds in a game based format.

Get to Work will calculate and display commuting costs as you search for your dream job.

The Leeds Climate Change Strategy dashboard will show progress towards meeting six of the priority actions defined in the Leeds Climate Change Strategy (2012-2015).

The Leeds Cultural Hub app will highlight the cultural offering and levels of participation across the city. It aims to increase access by including real-time information on traffic, transport and weather.

CareKnect is exploring what data and visualisation needs to be developed that will enable people in Leeds to be well and stay well.

The Rhythm of the City is a musical representation of footfall data through the medium of the brass band.

As with any project, it’s success is defined by what happens in the long term. It will be interesting to see if these ideas and concept catalyse people to commit their time and energy to turn them into reality.

For now, you can follow our progress on Twitter via @LeedsDataMill. We will be announcing the next round of public events soon. And finally – don’t forget to visit Leeds Data Mill.