Bristol City Council has a bold vision to promote transparency and engage individuals, communities and businesses through digital technology. It is tapping into the social, economic and cultural advantages of a “connected city” that values information sharing and fosters growth in the new technology sector.
The city has a thriving digital economy and large-scale ambitions to grow this further. The council has been prepared to invest, take risks around the digital agenda and be an early adopter of new technologies.
Bristol’s open data strategy took off in 2010. The council had a strong champion for its open source/open data work in the form of Councillor Mark Wright, a software engineer and executive member. At a public meeting in June 2010 he said: “There are only two types of data in Bristol City Council: confidential data which we can’t share, and open data which will be made available.”
This call to arms gave momentum to the council’s work around open data. However, a number of challenges came to light:
- some data gets sold and has a value to the council
- some data is expensive to collect
- some data is incomplete, incorrect or held in a way that would not make sense to an external audience.
Work on publishing open data began, and Bristol’s B-Open datastore was launched via data.gov.uk. The council initially published 30 datasets containing demographic, Bristol City Council: Bringing open data to life environmental, geographic and political information, and decided to review the interest and uptake of these datasets before releasing more specialist or complex information.
Rather than simply publishing the data, the council wanted to showcase its potential value. It launched a competition, B-Open, designed to promote transparency and increase citizen/community engagement. Businesses and community groups were invited to come up with ideas on how the data could be used to create applications, websites, mobile products or installations that would enhance people’s interaction with the city.
The launch of B-Open attracted representatives from major players in the city’s digital creative sector, including Aardman and the BBC, and many smaller ones. Fourteen entries were received and funding was provided for three winning projects:
- Blossom Bristol – a phone-based game where people plant virtual crops in the city and watch them flourish or fail depending on real environmental factors.
- Hills are Evil – a dynamic map overlay helping people with restricted mobility find the best accessible route between any two places.
- I Love My City – representing spending at a hyper-local level.
The council also worked with the University of the West of England to look at creative ways to express open data. The artist YoHa created interactive pneumatic contraptions powered by the ‘expenditure over £500’ data – such as a seat that went up and down depending on how much was spent in the latest transaction.
Makala Campbell is digital projects producer at Knowle West Media Centre, a media arts charity that supports cultural and social regeneration in Bristol. She has been working with the council's futures team to develop some of the data visualisation projects, and says: “I think it's fabulous and also vital that the council embraces and supports the strengths this city has in both creativity and technology.” Some of the applications can be seen at: http://data.gov.uk/apps/tag/Bristol-City-Council.
Investing in transparency
While this work has focused on transparency and accountability, there has been some impact on efficiency. For example, better data gathering and information systems have reduced duplication. Moving the council’s public interface to a single portal means that people don’t have to register separately for different services and information is easier to find. It has also led to better communication between service areas. However, the efficiency savings are difficult to quantify and this information has not been collected.
Bristol City Council has not been afraid to provide financial and other support that fosters the digital economy, seeing it as a long-term investment. A modest spend on the B-Open competition generated a large amount of publicity for the council’s open data work in the local press. Kevin O’Malley, Bristol’s Future City Team Manager, says:
It highlighted what we were doing around open data to the public and opened local organisations up to the idea that this data had some value.
Bristol has an active e-democracy programme which includes e-petitioning, webcasting of meetings and an online discussion forum. The council is now looking at how social media can be used to promote and foster public involvement in decision-making. There is data on the number of views/hits to webcast meetings in 2012:
- 37,346 total unique visitor addresses
- 18,842 return visitor addresses
- 18,504 one-time visitor addresses.
These figures count unique visitors by IP address, so the many visitors that may come from one organisation, or the council itself, are only counted once.
Another development involves live blogging and discussion forums alongside webcast meetings. In some meetings, such as scrutiny, the live online debate is sometimes brought into the meeting and councillors can directly address points made by the audience. While no information is available on who is using these services, in 2012 of 20 broadcast events there were 1,911 requests for a replay of part of the meeting, 1,479 comments sent, and the average viewer watched for just over one hour.
Making transparency work
For citizens, the benefits of Bristol’s information revolution include more joined-up services that meet need, economic investment and jobs, and more opportunities to engage and participate in council decisions.
The city council has created the post of ‘intelligent council programme manager’ whose remit includes making the best use of open data and ensuring that the public, private and voluntary sectors can make the most of information. The future city team works to enhance the city’s digital infrastructure, dealing with issues around inclusion and innovation and offering a single point of contact for businesses to discuss their digital needs.
Kevin O’Malley says:
One of our goals in Bristol is to recognise that the relationship between the council and citizens is changing. Councils need to move towards becoming ‘lead citizens’. We need to share the information we have and listen to our citizens, making sure they are empowered to make decisions with us.
For further information please contact Kevin O’Malley, Future City Team Manager, Bristol City Council: firstname.lastname@example.org.