Guest blog: Unlocking Data, part four – local government led information infrastructure

16 Nov 2015, 3:19 pm

by Gesche Schmid, Data and Transparency, Local Government Association

Gesche_SchmidThere are some good examples of data standardisation endeavours in local government partnerships, but there is a need to further enhance, develop and share. Could a locally-led common information infrastructure be the way forward? Gesche Schmid, Data and Transparency, Local Government Association makes the case, as part of the continuing Unlocking Data series.

As places differ, so will the data that are created and used to provide local services. However, there is also a need for comparing and combining data across local and regional boundaries to improve services and make efficiencies as more services are digitised.

In my previous blog, I described the need for standards with examples where their use better connects and delivers public services. In this blog, I will explain a sector-led approach to develop and use those standards across locations and how we can enhance them through a collaborative approach as part of the wider information infrastructure.

The Government has recognised the need for a National Information Infrastructure (NII) to manage the delivery of strategically important data held by government to support delivery platforms and provide connected digital services through the Government Digital Service (GDS). Standards form an important part of the framework.

But there is also an evolving local information infrastructure, which enables local data and information to be easily discovered, combined and compared to make them more meaningful in a regional or national context. The local information infrastructure is a sector led approach to develop and maintain:

  • common standards, classifications and taxonomies where they do not already exist
  • practical and technical guidance which sets out some of the principles for publishing and linking data
  • a local domain to provide a common focal point for sharing and promoting local open data, common standards, apps and initiatives
  • promote the benefits of standards that already exist.

A sector-led approach enables authorities to work together to design standards that meet their collective needs and demands. They will own and maintain this approach if they are able to influence outcomes and if it is in their interest to improve and share services, rather than when they are centrally imposed.

Promoting a local information infrastructure

The LGA, the Local e-Government Standards Body (LeGSB), pioneering local authorities, GDS and the Department for Communities Local Government (DCLG) have been involved in developing and promoting a local information infrastructure through a local government-led collaborative approach. Government has recognised the validity of such an approach.

For example, LGA has been working with local government since 2002 through the LGInform Plus programme to develop common information sharing standards. This work has advanced substantially in recent years with the publication of wider data and the LGA’s open data portal which makes registers of standards and data, guidance and tools available.

The story so far

There are some good examples that demonstrate the achievements of local government in the development and use of standardised schemas to create and use datasets regionally and nationally.

Some open data schemas and guidance on how to use them are available and in use for spending, procurement, land assets, inventories, planning applications, licensed premises and public conveniences which help to combine data from local authorities in a consistent way.

For example, Spend Network is using the schemas to compare spending data from local authorities to provide better insights for future procurement decisions.

But challenges remain. The need for further promotion, co-ordination and support is still essential. Too few authorities have signed up to these standards, largely due to limited resources and a lack of skill and support.

The recent local open data incentive scheme, funded by Cabinet Office, demonstrated that local authorities can be encouraged to publish data to common standards with some central co-ordination and support. Over 90 local authorities took part and published over 200 datasets to consistent standards covering public toilets, planning applications and licensed premises.

These datasets have been combined with national data sets, for example, aggregated public toilet data drawn from each of the 87 participating councils is able to drive the public toilet map application to show your nearest loo. This saves data analysts time and resources to scrape the data individually and to process them.

Similarly, Hampshire Hub has developed and used the schema to harvest local planning applications from their district networks and to publish and visualise them in a consistent way.

We continue to work closely with the Cabinet Office to publish local open data on data.gov.uk so that local dataset can be easily discovered in one place.

Local inventories – lists of metadata about data that local authorities publish – can now be directly harvested from local authority networks into data.gov.uk. This enables authorities to register their entire data inventory on data.gov.uk instead of having to update individual records.

Some suppliers have also signed up to adopt the inventory standards in their platform applications. Almost 6000 local data sets are now signposted on data.gov.uk. Over 400 of these have been published according to common schemas developed through a sector-led approach by the LGA for the transparency code and incentive scheme.

Call for collaboration

These examples demonstrate some initial achievements through a local government-led collaborative approach to developing and creating standardised data. However, against a backdrop of regional devolution and increasing digital transformation on larger platforms, there is a need to further enhance, develop and share standards.

It is vital to promote and encourage the take up of these standards by suppliers and developers to create linkable data and enhance the information value chain.

The LGA is driving the co-ordination of a joined-up sector-led approach for local data standards and supports councils to improve data quality to meet local digital government needs through its LG Inform Plus Programme. Find out more about the programme.

Local government, government departments and other stakeholders must now work together to further develop, co-ordinate and recognise common standards and to provide the necessary support through policies, governance, networks, engagement, procurement and upskilling.

Get involved

The LGA welcomes engagement with the sector and partners to promote, make more use and enhance locally-developed standards within a wider information infrastructure. To get involved, contact Gesche.schmid@local.gov.uk or Tim.Adams@local.gov.uk.

This is an edited version of an article originally published on the Public Service Transformation Network website. The Public Service Transformation Network champions a ‘whole place’, multi-agency approach to public service reform and helps local public sector partners remodel services so they are designed around the needs of people, not the needs of organisations.