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Camden open data platform aims to blaze a trail across London

Camden council’s open data platform aims to enlist other London boroughs in a drive to be “world class”. The borough is home to leading lights of UK tech, including Google UK and BT Openreach

Camden council has launched its open data platform with the aim of enlisting other London boroughs into a drive to be “world class”.

Theo Blackwell, Camden cabinet member for finance, technology and growth, says the initiative, which hosts more than 300 datasets – holding information on such matters as parking bays, planning applications, housing stock and road accidents – is part of a concerted effort to enhance the practice of local government. It has been in existence for a few years, but is now in full public release, with the goal of being a beacon for others.

The Camden Open Data site has had 1.7 million page views since it was first trialled in 2015. Blackwell says Camden has many times the number of datasets per head of population than London as a whole on the London Datastore. The borough’s population is 220,000, compared with the capital’s 8.5 million, and it has 305 datasets to London’s 702.

“Camden as a borough hosts a world-class tech sector, so it is right that Camden should be a leading digital council,” he says. “In 2015, we became an ‘open-by-default’ council where datasets would be published unless there was a compelling reason not to. Our platform has built up a huge store of clean, accessible data for the public benefit.”

In March, the council organised an Open Data Challenge, in which coders, developers, designers, programmers and data enthusiasts were tasked with finding new ways to use data for the benefit of Camden residents.

“Once we got to a critical mass of about 300 datasets, we decided to [hard] launch and put out an open call to coincide with the launch of the Socrata [open data] platform [much used for government open data programmes in the US],” says Blackwell. “We directed the coders at, for instance, housing allocation – where choice-based lettings would benefit from more information being at people’s fingertips – for example, there’s some building works about to happen, or there is a high-demand school in the area.”

The coders came from “local” businesses, such as Google and Transport for London, colleges such as UCL, and they were joined by data-savvy professionals, including doctors from the borough’s hospitals, he says.

“The thing with theses hackathons, though, is that they can be a one-off. But we want to keep the Camden community going. We think the platform is one of the most heavily used in the country. That is a consequence of our open data commitment. We are open by default, we publish in a standardised format, and residents can request data. For instance, one councillor wanted pedestrian road accidents [data] by ward.”

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An example of Camden’s use of open data is a planning email alert system. The council’s data team was able to do that quickly and at low cost because open data is easy for programmers to reuse, says Blackwell. The system has contributed to a £200,000 saving for the planning service’s budget by reducing the number of letters, in unaddressed brown envelopes, that its sends to residents about planning applications.

“The data on planning applications is updated every day,” he says. “So we created a tool whereby people get an email alert according to whatever parameters they have set. That saving of £200,000 a year is enough to run a small neighbourhood library.”

The council also uses some master data management software from IBM to build up a “golden record” of residents – the Camden Residents Index. That should enable a more joined-up approach to understanding who lives in the borough, so that, for instance, victims of domestic abuse might be identified from lateral information, such as doors being repaired regularly. “It makes for more effective targeting of services,” says Blackwell.

“With IBM Big Data Analytics, we have built a ‘residents index’ of citizen information – stored and securely managed at 16 locations across London – that we expect to revolutionise work around debt collection and the targeting of illegal subletting and fraudulent schools admissions,” he adds.

“If other councils adopted this approach, London would have an amazing set of data that could be used by business and civil society to make improvements to public services. Camden is now up there with other councils leading the charge on open data, such as Leeds, Milton Keynes and Bristol.”

The council has “a formal business board” that includes representatives from Google, architects Arup, BT Openreach, and representatives of business improvement districts, including Camden Town Unlimited, which has 300 startups. “Camden creates 2% of the national wealth,” says Blackwell – mostly from Camden Town to Covent Garden.

“We see this platform as the beginning of a major move in London to link up the boroughs that want to be world class in technology in public service delivery.”

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