West Midlands Open Data Forum (WMODF) welcomes the generation by Birmingham City Council (BCC) of an integrated strategy for data, information, IT and digital. Furthermore, we applaud the commitment of BCC to consult on their proposals and to potentially collaborate with stakeholders. In particular we trust this will include groups with overlapping interests and related expertise like WMODF; more of this later.
Our response covers two aspects of the strategy: overall remarks and specific comments on data in Theme 3, Insight. While we are grateful for the opportunities provided to view the more detailed levels of the strategy, this response is to the published consultation document.
General Points (in no particular order)
- An integrated ICT & D strategy open to consultation is a positive change. These technologies are so strongly embedded in our current and future lives and organisations, especially in a city with such a high proportion of young people. We welcome BCC re‑establishing its control of its computing and data but we expect and require that it will work 24/7. BCC does not feel like a council that has empowered us through technology – yet. Yes, get the operation and standards right but ensure the highest profile for the way the systems are experienced by citizens, businesses and visitors. Are there user panels testing, evaluating and suggesting how services should be experienced through technology?
- There are references to partnerships and a commitment to open and common standards. It is not clear how the benefits of co‑operating with other local authorities in the region on data and systems will happen, or how the WMCA will reduce/share the demands on Birmingham as a city rather than add to them.
- The consultation appears to be happening after the event, i.e. many key decisions appear to have been taken already. We recognise this is a chicken and egg situation and it is right that BCC creates the framework to which we respond. The question we pose is how can there be early and ongoing dialogue with key stakeholders, like WMODF, to inform strategies and plans in the making?
- The commitment to innovation is essential. Birmingham should be a national/international leading city, but we fear that in the area of open data we have some way to go. For many reasons, it has been difficult for small, innovative organisations to contribute to BCC, particularly to win contracted work. Open approaches and the sharing of data can open doors. However, there do need to be new approaches to allowing SMEs and micro businesses into BCC. For example, shared reward schemes which would allow some of the savings achieved by new approaches to be paid to the innovators. ‘Outside’ expertise should be allowed to access, under appropriate NDA and confidentiality agreements, all of BCC’s data. Has the City Council considered the establishment of a ‘skunk works’ team to innovate services and their use of technology?
- Current technologies have the capability to transform the way BCC provides services. We support the concept of digital by default, providing there are options for those who choose otherwise or are unable to use it. However, this does require a change in priorities for BCC staff so that the digital channels, e.g. website and social media, are up to date. How are crowd‑sourced solutions to be handled? Amazon‑style approaches to tailoring responses may also help. BCC staff with expertise and knowledge of the city are not easily contactable and the BCC Contact Centre cannot resolve complex issues and may be a barrier between residents and staff.
- Create mechanisms to engage local residents, organisations and businesses to try out digital services at early stages of development.
- Strengthen commitments and plans to sharing standards, systems and data with other local authorities within WMCA and to co‑operating with other agencies on data beyond BCC’s own, e.g. in Transport, Health, Business.
- Establish processes to enable dialogue, prior to key decision points in the strategy.
- Make access to data and reward for innovation easier.
- Open BCC in appropriate modern digital ways, so that staff are available to citizens (customers) and knowledge is shared.
Points on Data (Theme 3 Insight)
- We particularly welcome this theme and its objective “to become more data centric – so [BCC] can create the capability to turn data into information and information into insight”.
- We welcome the statements “[BCC] must adopt and insist on the use of agreed „Open‟ data, models, standards, specifications and architecture” and “[BCC] will become less resistant to unlocking and providing access to data, stemming either from data protection concerns or exposing the performance of the organisation or specific services. Public access to Council information will promote lively democracy, integrity and better decision making”. BCC needs clear processes to implement current policies that make BCC data open by default, develop processes and keep them updated e.g. BCC Open Data policy, “There will be an assumption that data likely to be useful to the public or other users will be published automatically by council services” i.e. data is only withheld by exception, for example confidential personal data.
- Opening data should ensure that the limitations imposed by the use of proprietary systems, e.g. Ordnance Survey (OS), do not affect open use. There may be alternative solutions such as Open Street Map.
- As BCC moves to a model of increased partnership working with other statutory bodies, a greater range of data is likely to be created that is not under the direct control of BCC. Equally, as BCC increasingly commissions services from the voluntary and private sector a volume of data will be created through contract management. It would be beneficial for BCC to create a presumption that data created through these routes should both inform insight and have a presumption of being more widely released. These principles should be explicitly embedded in partnership agreements and contracts.
- The principle of customer insight should not be seen as an exclusively BCC function. After all customers are shared across a variety of organisations, both public and private, in Birmingham. The open data model provides a medium for BCC to release anonymised data to develop innovation in customer insight.
- As part of WMODF, RnR Organisation, a local social enterprise, is running an Open Data Commission. This includes a brief document entitled ‘Top 10 Tips’, which WMODF is happy to release to assist the development of this section.
- The establishment of an Open Data Institute node in Birmingham, whose membership and steering group includes several WMODF members, offers opportunities to support and develop local and regional open data insights, knowledge, expertise and service/product development which, amongst other outcomes, can contribute to the success of this strategy
- Use the ‘Top 10 Tips’ from WMODF to review this section.
As indicated in our introduction, we welcome the generation of an integrated strategy by Birmingham City Council and the process of openness and consultation which we trust will continue. Our comments are not intended as criticism but as a contribution to improving the strategy as it continues to be developed and, more importantly, as it is implemented. In line with our recommendations we look forward to further contact.