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Tech landscape: How Plymouth's open data 'play days' are transforming community engagement

Words: Simon Wicks
Tech landscape: Dom Moore

By sharing data through digital platforms with local people and tech developers, Plymouth City Council is transforming the way it engages with communities.

“The Play Days have just gone from strength to strength,” says Plymouth City Council’s neighbourhood planning manager Hannah Sloggett (pictured left).

Yes, you read that correctly. But Play Days aren’t some newfangled scheme to bring people together by liberating their inner child. Or rather they are, but the play has a purpose – to toy with city data in ways that can improve planning and public service delivery.

The ‘players’ are community groups, council officers, local tech developers and built environment professionals, students, even national park employees and anyone else with an interest in using open data to improve the experience of living in Plymouth, the South-West’s second-largest city.

It started, says Sloggett, with wanting to improve information for residents during the creation of the award-winning Plymouth Plan. 

“We wanted to use data to better understand local communities – are people living in bigger houses than they need? Are they fuel-efficient? In terms of transport data, how are people travelling to work?”

“We wanted to use data to better understand local communities – are people living in bigger houses than they need? Are they fuel-efficient? How are people travelling to work?”

The result was “50-odd” datasets that gave planners a rare insight into their city. It also enabled Sloggett and her colleagues to post information online that addressed common concerns about the plan.

“All the data related to what people raised around new sites,” says Sloggett. “For example, ‘My GP is at capacity and I can’t get an appointment’, ‘I can’t get my child in the local school’, and so on.”

With access to data, people were able to make better-informed observations about the proposed Plymouth Plan, “massively improving” the quality of the consultation. It was a turning point. 

“Making all this information publicly available started me on this open data journey, because I saw its value in engaging with communities and finding different ways for local authorities to tackle some of the challenges they have,” says Sloggett.

So she and colleagues started collecting all the data they could find, from council departments and external organisations. In so doing, they identified hurdles to data collection – such as institutional ‘silos’ and the fact that swathes of useful information were “locked up” in evidence reports, often in formats such as PDF, from which it was hard to extract information digitally.

Money from the DCLG’s ‘Delivering Differently in Neighbourhoods’ fund helped to scale up the data capture project. “We used some of that to start DATA Play, to open up our data and bring together communities, digital and tech people,” she adds.

Up and running

DATA Play Day 1 was an experiment – to see whether sharing open data could help people understand their city better and build relationships between the council and Plymouth’s tech community. Play Day 2 offered financial rewards for ideas about using the data productively, with support from experts and city leaders. Subsequent Play Days have addressed themes such as health, green space and neighbourhood planning. 

Early results of the ‘citizen science’ project are promising: residents and developers have embarked on schemes that range from building local data dashboards (containing anything from house prices to waste recycling figures) to using sensors to find out how many people are using local parks.

More than one idea has start-up investment potential, says Sloggett. These include a virtual reality tool to guide people through Plymouth’s history using information from the city archive, and a tree database. Each is driven by what Sloggett calls “civic developers".

“It’s much more about the culture of cities and authorities. It’s about the relationships with different organisations"

Aside from know-how, the tech community brings an “open, sharing” mindset that is spreading beyond the DATA Play sessions. As Sloggett observes, council departments are sharing information more willingly and there’s even now an informal group learning to use digital tech in their everyday work. 

“It’s much more about the culture of cities and authorities. It’s about the relationships and the ways of working with different organisations,” she says.

Work is continuing to build a citywide dashboard and an open online repository for the city data collected through DATA Play. It’s being done at minimal cost, too. “I struggle with the whole big budget smart city agenda,” says Sloggett. “I think there are other routes to doing that [using data] than the multimillion-pound routes that are not achievable or replicable for most authorities.”

Plymouth now finds itself a pilot authority with the Future Cities Catapult’s Future of Planning programme. As the project develops, Sloggett is keen to work out how the city can use data to monitor the delivery and performance of the Plymouth Plan. 

In particular she is interested in how digital technology and live data updates can enable plans to “adapt and be more flexible” – in other words, how planning can achieve the Holy Grail of ‘real-time’ local planning. With more projects like DATA Play that goal might edge just a little closer.

Photography | Dom Moore