Exploring the development of common standards and a regional open data platform in the West of England to support transparent and collaborative working on key regional strategic issues such as air quality, the climate emergency and economic growth.

Full Application: Not funded at this stage

The West of England Combined Authority (WECA) comprises three local authorities, Bristol City Council, Bath and North East Somerset Council, and South Gloucestershire Council. WECA has oversight of the regional transport, clean air and economic growth portfolio. In addition North Somerset is also consulted on many common policy areas.

There is currently no coherent regional approach, standards or  platform for open data to support research and dissemination of policy activity in these areas. Hence data used to underpin decision making in the region may not be visible to citizens and this may undermine citizens’ confidence in decision making regionally.

Air quality is a critical issue for many local authorities in the UK. All three of the West of England Local Authorities have been directed by the government to take action to improve air quality in order to reduce public health impact.

Air quality data is often not readily available to the general public or is not in a format that enables easy understanding or consumption. It is vital that the public have confidence in the air quality data that underpins difficult political decisions to drive behaviour change such as Clean Air Zones or other interventions in transport or energy systems.

While common standards exist within local air quality management for the measurement and reporting of air quality, the way these data are communicated to the public vary and sometimes inaccessible. An open data approach at a regional level could help to standardise reporting and lead the way to nationally adopted standards for air quality open data. A successful pilot with air quality data could lead to a regional open data platform that supports a range of regionally relevant datasets such as:

  • Transport
  • Economic Growth
  • Strategic Planning
  • Carbon Emissions
  • Climate Change Adaptation

Stakeholders include local and regional authorities, Defra, campaign groups, the public, academics, the business community, open data subject matter experts and ICT providers.

BCC has developed data processes, user research, and information products that could be further developed to create a regional open data platform, which could be piloted using air quality, meteorological and carbon data from the local authorities in WECA and the region.

Plans are emerging for a WECA regional operations centre, based on Bristol’s successful model. A regional open data platform would be a vital infrastructure component for this operations centre to support internal and external data sharing with partner organisations and stakeholders, including the public.

BCC has recently published its Smart City Strategy. While the strategy is not solely about open data, it has a strong focus on  transparency, connectivity and public service innovation. One of the design principles is “open by default” so there is a clear commitment to open up council data. This project will review open data and smart city  strategy within partner councils to validate that approach before exploring pilot datasets.

One of the key aims of the strategy is to develop a regional “Smart Alliance” within the West of England. We see that a regional open data platform could be a fundamental component of that alliance supporting innovation by providing regional open data infrastructure as part of the Smart Alliance and regional operations centre.

Our assumption is that the datasets used for evidence – based policy making in the West of England are not very visible to the general public or wider stakeholders and hence confidence in decision making is sub – optimal. We hypothesise that opening up relevant and interesting datasets on a regional open data platform, informed and owned by constituent local authorities, will improve transparency and accountability for WECA and also improve accessibility to key datasets across the region. 

This will support a co – operative approach to interventions in transport, planning and energy systems. This could also deliver cost savings by virtue of scale, showing that a business case for a regional platform is more cost – effective than for multiple local authority scale platforms.

If we take air quality as an example, the three WECA councils have different offers on air quality data:

  • Bristol – open data with real time data feed and historic dataset. Air Quality Dashboard for public with high quality interactive visualisations. Supports citizen sensing and IOT through API’s.
  • South Gloucestershire – publishes annual air quality reports in line with LAQM requirements
  • BANES – Web page for live air quality data. Additionally, it publishes annual air quality reports in line with LAQM requirements. BANES air quality data is present on Bath Hacked with a real time feed.

In terms of research methods we would engage our stakeholders and use an online survey to gauge whether there is an appetite for an improved air quality data offer across the WECA authorities, including North Somerset. This would be supplemented by analytics from current air quality open data platforms in Bristol and Bath. 

We would also conduct focus group sessions with key stakeholders such as campaigners, academics, public health, environmental consultants, developers and the community to support the creation of user stories and personas to identify design requirements for the open data offer. These design requirements would be used to inform a data standards manual for local authorities providing air quality data and other key regional datasets such as carbon, transport etc. The project will also scope opportunities to make open environmental data accessible to non-expert audiences and draw upon the learning of the ODI research “How to design to scale: lessons about local innovation”.

We will define appropriate governance arrangements at a high level for a regional platform and identify support roles and ongoing resources needed to ensure that a regional platform is put on a sustainable footing.

This approach will build on all participating organisation’s commitment to the digital declaration and scope the potential to deliver an Open Source, sustainable data platform as a result.

Commercial providers for air quality data websites exist, although these are not generally possible to repurpose for wider open data use. Total annual cost averaged over five years for each authority to have it’s own air quality website (not open data) would be £6180. This is derived from a commercial operator’s quote.

These commercial offerings are typically tied to a particular manufacturer’s hardware and protocols and would not be viewed as “open data” as they are not machine readable and there is no access via API. We will further research typical costs for air quality data websites as part of the discovery work. 

Independent open data platforms cost in the order of £35k each per annum. Hence there is a clear potential cost savings basis for a business case to consolidate multiple local authorities data onto one regional platform particularly if a locally hosted, open source model could be identified.

A cost local authorities have to bear that could be mitigated by this project is responding to FOI requests for air quality. Initial figures for numbers of FOI requests have been sought in Bristol and this will be explored further in the discovery phase.

A further social cost that could be mitigated by improved regional open data on air quality is the health impact of poor air quality. We know that up to 300 people in Bristol die each year because of poor air quality. Greater visibility and a consolidated regional view of air quality could drive further action by WECA, councils and individuals to reduce emissions, improve air quality and thereby improve public health.

There is significant potential for a regional open data approach  for air quality to be adopted by local authorities across the UK. Wales and Scotland already have regional air quality data websites, though again, these are not open data platforms. In core cities not covered by these regional websites, the air quality data offer can be categorised as follows.

City LA AQ Data available Real time Platform Open data
Leeds Yes on data mill north Yes, only AURN Data mill north (not real time) Yes
Liverpool No No None No
Manchester No No Manchester open data (no AQ data) No
Newcastle No No No No
Nottingham Yes Yes Envitech No
Sheffield Diffusion tube only No ArcGIS No
Birmingham No No None Historic data on data.birmingham.gov.uk

Hence it can be seen that, even in the subset of core cities, there is significant potential to adopt an open data approach which could be regional in nature. Data Mill North is perhaps the leading current example of this approach and we would seek to learn lessons from their operating model and improve where possible.

Open air quality data from cities and local authorities would usefully augment the national network of air quality monitors operated by the Environment Agency for Defra. This would greatly aid understanding of air quality by increasing the visibility of air quality monitoring. Increased accessibility of the data in an open and machine readable format would enable researchers and developers to create innovative new information products to drive behaviour change.

We will pilot air quality data in the discovery phase but also seek to identify other well – developed datasets of regional interest that could be incorporated at alpha and beta stages, subject to approvals. This could include for example, carbon emissions.

A Project Board will be established with representation from key local authority partners, with a supplementary advisory group comprising of a broader user group of stakeholders who are able to support the scoping and delivery of the project. The project board will have decision making accountability for delivery.

Project scoping and implementation will be under BCC’s accepted project management and governance arrangements. This will include agile project management tools and techniques to scope, manage, implement, review, and evaluate the project with a project status dashboard. 

The use of communications technology such as tele/video conferencing and secure shared IT applications on premises and cloud, and the appropriate use of social media and working groups (e.g Slack / Trello) will support joined up stakeholder engagement, project management process and delivery across the partners.

We agree to work collaboratively with MHCLG’s lead contact, share project related data, take part in MHCLG organised events as appropriate and have regular meetings and open conversations about project scope, delivery and outputs.

  • Training session on Agile for key members of the project team  focussed on working-level and leadership courses in Digital and Agile working. 
  • Ability to send communications via MHCLG channels (like newsletter, twitter, etc) to help us promote the benefits of the project & approach
  • Help with sharing outputs and wider benefits with the LGA and other key organisations
  • Help with engaging with other local authorities that wish to understand and engage with the project
  • Support in understanding and sharing best practice in the development and delivery of common open data standards 
  • We may liaise with the Open Data Institute to access relevant training and current understanding of the field.