Alison Clark-Dick explains how the Improvement Service are turning local government data into a valuable and self-sustaining asset and what this means for local authorities.
Local authorities collect masses of data in the course of delivering their services. Much of this data is collected for one single purpose and rarely used elsewhere. There may be few standards in data collection and frequently the policy directives which lead to its collection generally avoid data maintenance specifications. Hence, little value is placed on the resources around this data and the resultant deterioration in quality has become noticeable. However, with a little thought, planning and structure, such data can become a valuable asset to local government for internal purposes, such as decision-making and digital transformation. It is equally valuable to the wider data community that require it for innovation and business.
At the Improvement Service [IS] we had already recognised this potential through commercialisation of local government created address data (via Ordnance Survey) and IS is now providing reimbursement (£250k this year) back to local authorities to reinvest in improving and maintaining such datasets. We know from multiple requests from the wider data community (including 100+ companies) that many other local government datasets have similar value to addresses. The difficulty of accessing these datasets has resulted in frustration to those wishing to use them. Therefore, the Spatial Hub has been created to collect, conform and publish (via web services) many other national datasets (36 and counting).
Improvement Service is about to enter into partnerships with companies who will be Solution Providers and take these datasets to the commercial market. This should increase the reimbursement available to keep the data well maintained in local authorities as a self-sustaining model.
In doing this, IS are:
- Increasing the accessibility, use and quality of local government data
- easing the burden of other data users having to make sense of all of this unstructured and unstandardised data, thus increasing productivity
- generating money to redress the deterioration of resources and quality in data management
There is no reason why this is restricted to local government data. Improvement Service is currently negotiating data sharing agreements with utilities companies, so that their data can be made more accessible. There has been some interest in England and Wales and consideration is being given as to how the model could be applied there. In a world of declining resources for local government and public services, the Spatial Hub offers an opportunity to use an untapped public asset to improve the data and intelligence that should be part of the building blocks of a better society.
What’s the issue? Why do we need a ‘Spatial Hub’?
Data collected by local government for specific business purposes is often only used once, with little thought to how it could be used elsewhere. This is despite local government having legal obligations to make data accessible and interoperable for other purposes under the EU’s INSPIRE Directive.
When central government policy is applied in a local government context, data collection and standardisation (which is important so that policies can be assessed and monitored) is often overlooked. Therefore, there is a massive disconnect between policy staff and data staff and it becomes very difficult to get a clear picture of what is going on. If deficiencies in the data can be addressed at a national level and the data can be more widely used and valued, it will help raise the profile of the importance of good, well-resourced data management in local government, which is the building block for digital transformation.
How does it work?
The Spatial Hub is built on a mostly open-source tech stack, which keeps maintenance costs down. It enables efficient collection, transformation and publication of local government data every quarter. Agreements were set up with the each council, enabling the Improvement Service to act on their behalf to implement a data quality improvement programme and to facilitate access to their datasets to a wide range of end users. Datasets were incrementally prioritised, collected and published over the past three years.
Currently, data is made available to the public sector in line with the One Scotland Mapping Agreement using organisational authentication keys. However, datasets will soon be made available to other sectors of the data community. This includes enabling the commercial sector to pay for data access – as has been happening for years with the One Scotland Gazetteer (via Ordnance Survey’s addressing products).
What is the impact so far?
Since 2016 there have been over 1,000 uploads of data from local authorities. There are now 36 national datasets being continuously collected, improved and published from the Spatial Hub. 98 organisations have been issued with Spatial Hub authentication keys and are actively accessing datasets for their business.
Several organisations, for example SEPA and Marine Scotland, are using bespoke web services that have been created specifically for them to stream Spatial Hub datasets directly into their online web mapping applications. There have been 713,500 uses of Spatial Hub datasets since 2016.
The most popular Spatial Hub datasets are:
- School catchments
- Planning applications
- Tree preservation orders
£250,000 (raised from Ordnance Survey sales of address data) has recently been reimbursed to local authorities to spend specifically on certain areas of data improvements.
How is this being sustained?
The “value added” of data collation, improvement and publication comes at a cost, and it is it argued that doing this collection once and making the outputs widely available is the most cost-effective option. Without specific central government funding, the Improvement Service has determined that the most sustainable business model is to generate revenue from commercial usage of the datasets. Providing revenue to councils, to be targeted at improving their data quality has raised the profile of the people collecting the data. This in turn leads to their roles being better respected and protected.
The money generated from data sales may also be used to look at potential solutions for generic issues across the local government data community e.g. better ways to collect and share data over the web.
Have lessons been learned?
Data management and improvement only becomes pertinent to organisations once they begin to perceive real, tangible value and benefit from it. It was quickly realised that it is more effective to cajole people into doing something by helping them to realise that it has value and worth.
Developing the Spatial Hub avoids the need for each external organisation wishing to use this data having to do the same work themselves. This directly addresses one of the economic issues of low productivity caused by wasted and duplicated effort, for no net gain.
What are the next steps for the future of the Spatial Hub?
Once partnership agreements are in place with companies that wish to sell Spatial Hub data to the private sector, the 100 or so ‘end user’ companies that have been requesting data will be put in touch with them. The hope is to have a continuous sustainable source of income that will pay for this service, as well as enable the continuous provision of funds back to local government to help resource data improvements. Money will also be used to iteratively improve the way that data is collected, made more linkable and published via the Spatial Hub.