As a joint project between mySociety and the Centre for Public Data, we have written a set of simple principles for how to get the most impact out of publishing public data. You can read the report online, or download it as a PDF.
Fragmented public data is a problem that happens when many organisations are required to publish the same data, but not to a common standard or in a common location. Data is published, but without work to join up the results, it rarely has the intended impacts.
The results of this are frustrating for everyone. Data users cannot easily use the data, policy makers do not see the impact they want, and publishers in public authorities are required to produce data without seeing clear results from their work.
Better and more consistent publication of data by local authorities helps enable understanding and action at scale across a range of areas. At the same time, we recognise that the technical advice given has assumed higher levels of technical capacity that in practice is possible for many data publishing tasks. Our goal has been to make sure our advice makes data more accessible, while having a realistic idea of technical capacities and support needed for data publishing.
This report recommends three minimum features for a data publishing requirement to be successful:
- A collaborative (but compulsory) data standard to agree the data and format that is expected.
- A central repository of the location of the published data, which is kept up to date with new releases of data.
- Support from the data convener to make publication simple and effective – e.g. through validation and publication tools, coordinating returns, and technical support.
We recommend that:
- Whenever government imposes duties on multiple public authorities to publish datasets in future, it should also provide the staff and budget to enable these features.
- The Central Data and Digital Office should publish official guidance covering the above.
You can read the report online, or download it as a PDF.
Better data publishing helps climate action
This project is informed by recurring frustrations we have run into in our work. Projects such as KeepItIntheCommunity, which mapped registered Assets of Community Value, were much more complicated than they needed to be because while transparency was required of authorities, coordination was not – meaning the task of keeping the site comprehensive and updated was enormously difficult. In principle, we could build a tool that empowered communities in line with the intentions of the original policy makers. In practice, a lack of support for basic data publishing made the project much harder than it needed to be.
This problem also affects our work around local government and reducing emissions. Local government has influence over one third of emissions, but much of that is indirect rather than from the corporate emissions of the authority directly. As such, many activities (and datasets) of local government have climate implications, even if the work or data is not understood as climate data. For instance, the difficulty in accessing the asset data of local authorities makes it harder for civil society to cross-reference this information with the energy rating of properties, and produce tools to help councils understand the wider picture.
In future we will be publishing in more detail the kind of data we think is needed to support local authorities in emission reduction – but emissions reduction cannot be isolated from the general work of local authorities. Improving the consistency of the data that is published helps everyone better understand the work that is happening, and makes local government more efficient.
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Photo credit: Photo by Olav Ahrens Røtne on Unsplash
Identifying opportunities for levelling up and net zero both require high quality, comparable local data
The levelling-up white paper sets out the government’s direction and strategy for reducing regional inequalities, a much-needed objective as the UK has one of the worst regional inequalities in the OECD countries. The paper outlines new opportunities for local authorities to have devolution-style powers and gain more autonomy by 2030.
There is a large gap in the levelling-up agenda: the white paper does not put the recently published net zero strategy at its heart. Both levelling up and net zero require systematic changes to the role local government plays in directing the economic activities of their area, and engaging and working with communities and citizens.
Improving local data is important to boosting local economies while delivering a net zero transformation, and implementing those two as one comprehensive package will help fully embed environmental considerations in economic decisions.
Levelling up and net zero have to be approached as a mutually supportive package, and not as two separate packages. Their implementation will create new economic models and lead to new governance structures. Both require new transparency mechanisms to enable citizens to track progress towards commitments.
A new independent body to gather, enhance and make data accessible to local governments and citizens
Both the levelling up and net zero agendas would benefit from high quality, evidence-based, and comparable local data. In the current situation, local data is not easy to navigate and does not always allow easy data discovery, aggregation and re-use.
mySociety and Climate Emergency UK have been working to transform a situation where council’s climate plans are hard to find and understand by making council climate action plans accessible on a central website, and producing comparison tools and scores on the basis of written commitments found in climate emergency plans to spur comparisons, identify best practice, and improve performance.
The importance of improved local data is recognised in the levelling up white paper announcement of a new independent body (p. 138) to gather, enhance, and make data accessible to local governments and citizens. Creating central pools of information helps spread learning and improve accountability, without undermining the local innovation that devolving power and responsibilities to local authorities and communities unlocks. The stated goal of this new body is to improve local leaders’ knowledge of their own services while increasing central government’s understanding of local authorities’ activities. This new body can play a very important part in improving the local data ecosystem.
This new capacity is equally important to the goal of net zero. It would be a missed opportunity not to strongly consider how this body could support local governments’ move towards net zero, and enable a transparent and just transition.
Addressing the limitations
Creating high quality local data is important to improving outcomes, but will also demonstrate the limits of current financial constraints. To deliver ambitious and sustainable transformations in both regional inequality and net zero requires sustained and structured investment in the resources and capacities of local authorities. Addressing inequalities through better local data should not be limited to collating data on economic inequalities, and it is therefore critical that the new datasets also highlight local health inequalities and gaps in social care funding that significantly contribute to existing inequalities that, in turn, lead to poor engagement in climate action. Data should not be a stick to beat local governments, but a tool to help them articulate problems and find solutions.
The plan is for the new independent data body to be co-designed with local government, but it is also important that this reflects the needs of local communities and citizens. Citizen engagement and participation is vital for both levelling up and net zero. As outlined by the Climate Change Committee, 62 per cent of the measures needed to meet the country’s net zero goal will require some form of behaviour or societal change, and this should be reflected on how data is used to drive accountability and transparency.
As more plans about this new data body emerge, we will advocate for it to support the transition to net zero through promoting inter-council learning, central government understanding, and community accountability.
What mySociety is doing around net zero and data
mySociety is working to repower democracy and enable new approaches to reducing carbon emissions. We are taking our experience running services such as TheyWorkForYou, WhatDoTheyKnow and FixMyStreet to work with partners and explore new services to reduce emissions within the scope of local authority activities.
To date, we have worked with Climate Emergency UK on the Climate Action Plan Explorer and the Council Climate Plan Scorecards, making local climate action plans more discoverable and accessible for local governments, campaigners, and citizens.
We are currently embarking on a series of prototyping weeks to explore different possible approaches with different partners. To hear more about our work, sign up to our climate newsletter.
Image: Retrofitting homes in progress, by Ashden