With relatively little funding, Plymouth Council is turning the city into a regional tech hub by opening up its data for private sector innovators. Data Plymouth, a data centre for the council, runs “Data Play Days,” hackathon-style events which allow local businesses to experiment with council data and create services or products. The council is also opening its own data to citizens with attractive data visualisations and a third-party-run data portal. Too small to attract the attention of any big funding bodies, Plymouth is showing how provincial cities can develop new industries. Now more local bodies are approaching Data Plymouth to open their own data to the city.
Results & Impact
The council has run seven Data Play Days to date and continues to receive ever more participants. It has invested in two of the projects which took part, one of them The Data Place, which sets up open data portals and now runs the council's own. The council has uploaded over 100 datasets to the portal, with 300-400 pieces of data within this. Private organisations are now approaching Data Plymouth to share their data via the portal. From 2015 to 2016, the number of information and communication enterprises in Plymouth has increased by 15%, while the number of professional, scientific and technical enterprises has increased by 14%, though these cannot be attributed directly to the impact of the Data Plymouth's work.
Plymouth City Council, Data Plymouth, the Department for Communities and Local Government, The Data Place
Data Plymouth is a council-run data centre for Plymouth that acts as a technology incubator for the city. Through a series of Data Play Days, hackathon-style events where local businesses can access council data to create products and services - Data Plymouth has built a technology community in the city and fostered cooperation between business and the council. Using funding from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), Data Plymouth awards innovative ideas at the events with small prizes of $2,560. The council has also invested as a shareholder in successful ideas: one of the first participants, The Data Place, is part-owned by the council and acts as a data portal for the city, posting relevant statistics on its site for the public to access. Data Plymouth creates attractive visualisations for some of these figures and publishes them on its page.
Plymouth, Devon, UK
General public, city dwellers, entrepreneurs
Cost & Value
The council received initial funding of $12,800 from the Department for Communities and Local Government to set up Data Plymouth and organise the first data play days. It has since received further funding of $35,800, which it has used in part to invest in local data businesses.
Running since 2015
Hannah Sloggett, the head of Data Plymouth, has found it difficult to encourage council staff to embrace opening their data and using it to inform policy. The culture change has been gradual, but as more datasets are opened to the public ever more council workers have gotten on board. Data Plymouth has had to do a lot with relatively little funding, and build support from the ground up.
London and Manchester have their own open data portals, London's Datastore and Open Data Manchester. The public is able to access local data through both of these. The London Datastore also runs an OrganiCity, a program through which local businesses and individuals can apply for funding for data projects in the city.
A small British city is turning itself into a regional tech centre from almost nothing. Plymouth, in the South West of England, is running workshops to give local technology businesses and entrepreneurs the tools they need to grow.
Data Plymouth, a council-run data incubator, is driving a culture change in local government. It acts as a hub organisation both within government and the city itself, encouraging the use of data to solve political problems in the council and providing tech start-ups in the city with opportunities to present their ideas and small grants.
“It sounds like we had a plan but we totally didn’t,” said Hannah Sloggett, the Neighbourhood Planning Manager at Plymouth City Council, and chief architect of Data Plymouth. “Just being prepared to try something was important.”
“We just weren’t on the agenda for any of the Innovate UK or smart cities funding. We wouldn’t have stood a chance, so we had to find a different way to do it,” said Sloggett.
With its hackathon-style events, “Data Play Days”, Data Plymouth opens its data for local businesses and entrepreneurs to work with. The council has since invested in two of the projects that came out of the events. One of these, The Data Place, a software firm which creates data portals, is now used by the council itself as an open data portal.
All this has been done from the bottom up on a small budget. “One of the things which is holding organisations back is the idea that opening data is expensive,” said Sloggett. “But actually doing it on a grassroots, community level can result in it being used a lot more and valued a lot more than in some of the smart cities where it’s corporations providing solutions.”
Data Plymouth grew out of a consultation exercise run by the council with local residents. Sloggett and others put together data toolkits so that residents could make informed comments on proposals. These included “all the data about the things that people raise when you talk about housing for the area, whether this is the capacity of a GP surgery, whether the schools are at capacity, the quality of housing in the area etc.,” she said.
Putting the toolkits together was arduous, but Sloggett noticed that they had an immediate effect. “They were massively valuable in ways that we didn’t expect,” she said. “We got loads of comments, but also people started to use them to apply for funding, community groups, for business plans, social enterprises… We started to see them popping up all over the place.”
By making this data public the council was giving people the tools to start their own businesses.
“That’s when we started to realise that all the data that’s locked up in the council and in various different places throughout the city was of great value to others. Because it had been a painful process I knew we wouldn’t want to do it again. So I was interested in a different way of being able to have that data available to people in a regular format.”
The council used $12,800 funding from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) to set up Data Plymouth, a hub organisation to link the council workers with local tech companies. In November 2015, it set up the first Data Play Day. The council opens up its data for local tech companies to experiment with, allowing them to create apps and visualisations. With the funding, the council was able to give small rewards of $2,600 for people with good ideas. To date, there have now been seven Data Play Days.
Using further DCLG funding of $35,800, the council has since invested in two of the ideas that emerged from the Data Play Days. One of these, The Data Place, up and running from March 2016, is an open data portal through which Plymouth residents are able to access the housing and infrastructure data the council had such trouble collecting in 2015.
“Over 100 datasets are up there and 300-400 actual pieces of data within that,” said Sloggett. “More are coming forward. The local theatre will give all their audience data.”
From 2015 to 2016, the number of information and communication enterprises in Plymouth has increased by 15%, while the number of professional, scientific and technical enterprises has risen by 14%, though it is unclear how much of a role Data Plymouth’s work played in this increase.
Data Plymouth was able to bring this experience into the council itself, despite initial reluctance. “Gradually this has shifted the thinking within the organisation,” said Sloggett. “Officers who wouldn’t normally engage with data or think that’s data’s important to them are engaging with it and coming forward. It unlocked officers that wouldn’t normally see themselves as data analysts or managers.”
Data Plymouth has undoubtedly led to a culture change within the council. But as a small city council, there is only so much it can do in comparison to larger cities and organisations, and only so many datasets it can open to the public. Inevitably, progress has been slow – and because most of the staff at Data Plymouth are council workers rather than tech professionals, they provide businesses value through the data they provide and the opportunity to experiment, rather than through teaching new skills.
(Picture credit: Flickr/Robert Pittman)