Tackling the air quality issue through open data

Sheffield City Council collaborated with the Better with Data Society to deliver a programme of co-design activities to engage local people with data and use it to better understand and tackle the issue of air quality in the city.

Data and transparency

This case study highlights the work of the Air Quality+ open data project in Sheffield. The project enables collaboration with the local open data community via the Better with Data Society (BWDS). It delivers a programme of co-design activities to engage local people with the data and use it to better understand and tackle the issue of air quality in the city.

Specifically the case study explains how Sheffield uses data to:

  • Focus on a particular thematic issue of interest as a route to engaging people with open data.
  • Provide an opportunity to build on the partnership between Sheffield City Council and the local open data community, accessed through the Better with Data Society in order to establish precedents for good data publication.

In the beginning

The council already held a wide range of data about Sheffield and were keen to bring this together centrally to provide a single point of contact for all data needs. They also have a vibrant open data and developer community and the council was keen to create the environment and infrastructure where open data could be freely used and utilised by this group for community benefit. In addition, open data also supports three key Information management strands in the council:

  • Freedom of Information;
  • Business Intelligence; and
  • Information Sharing.

The open data work undertaken in Sheffield was based upon supporting 5 key council values of: Accountability; Choice; Productivity; Quality and Outcomes and Social & Economic Growth.


A data platform (data.sheffield.gov.uk) was established to enable the data to be brought together in a fit for purpose and meaningful way. Responsibility for publishing onto the platform was managed within council teams and departments and co-ordinated through an Open Data Working Group. All publishers have been trained in how to use the data platform and in what, when and how to publish data. The data platform also allows data users to give feedback on datasets and direct questions to the publisher in order to connect and engage publishers and end-users, and lead to improved opportunities for co-design and co-production.

The BWDS are also members of the working group and this connection with data specialists have allowed the council to link into their expertise and consult more widely about technical issues around publishing data. Key personnel in The BWDS have also been able to access the platform and publish datasets.

Air quality data sets are generally challenging to understand due to their format and structure. To address this, the BWDS and data consultants have developed ways to take the air quality data from Sheffield's air quality monitoring stations and construct a semantic data store that converts data created from local proprietary practice into an easily adopted common standard. The result of this approach is that users can obtain data they want in the format they want directly from the datastore, rather than having to download several separate files, and then merge, post-process and manipulate the data. Detail about the technical rationale and benefits of this approach.

To support the knowledge sharing of the work undertaken at Sheffield, the working group minutes and presentations are available from (Sheffield Open Data Working Group).

Engaging the community

he council ran a range of activities to connect users with the newly available open data, and to encourage individuals to start working together across disciplines and communities. The activities focused in particular on air quality and its causes and consequences. Key strands of activity were:

Art, Data and the Quality of Air
The council commissioned three artworks that made use of the data measuring air pollutant levels around Sheffield. The artists produced three inspiring works which were exhibited at the Sheffield Institute. Each of the works took a different approach to the medium and the aspect of the topic of air quality addressed, for example the health and environmental impacts of poor quality air. This video shows some of the art work produced and provides a good overview of the Making a Difference with Data event. http://video.boilerhouse.co.uk/videos_lib/boilerhouse_Making_a_difference_with_data_sheffield.mp 4

The Air Aware campaign
Using Data from the Air Quality+ project the Air Aware Sheffield campaign aims to educate everyone in Sheffield about air quality, how they can help and how people can protect themselves from the health risks of pollution. This work links to key objectives for improvement in the local area: https://www.sheffield.gov.uk/environment/air-quality/air-aware-sheffield.html

Co-design workshops
A series of workshops were held in January, February and March 2015 to bring citizens, businesses and organisations together to create a data-driven ambition for air quality in Sheffield. Forty-seven people from the local authority, other public sector bodies and contractors, universities, museums, community organisations, technologists and others worked together on this. Some participants were data holders and others were data users, and all worked to explore the topic of air quality, and related issues such as public health, transport and cycling, to help improve the quality of data being collected and put it to good use.

Hack & Play Experimental Series
Following on from the co-design workshop series, the council held three hack and play evenings where those interested could hack, explore, and design with the data and use it to make something interesting, informative and insightful. This culminated in a final Show and Tell evening in April 2015 where participants could show the Sheffield open data community what they had been working on and potentially recruit interested individuals to help them develop their ideas further. Several interesting developments and prototypes were presented including:

  • An open data Kiosk app for presenting and visualising air quality data (and extensible to other forms of data), including real-time monitoring station data, community diffusion tube nitrogen dioxide monitoring, and industrial permits.
  • Using Sheffield air quality data to produce a teaching module for students to learn the interpretation of data and graphs.
  • A highlighter tool to improve the ability of beginners to address the technical barriers to using SPARQL for querying the air quality open data.

Maker Day and Display Devices
A maker day was held for people to get involved in devising and building Raspberry Pi-based handheld devices for displaying visualisations of the Sheffield air quality data. The Raspberry Pi Foundation and the developer of the Air Pi attended the session to share their knowledge and insights. The devices are now available for use by digital media centres, community centres, educational establishments and libraries as a learning tool for understanding more about air quality in the local area, as well as encouraging engagement with open data and hacking and making.

Open data event
The council also held an open data event in July 2015 to showcase their achievements with data. The event illustrated the benefits of opening up data to decision-makers working in or with the council. It explained how, through publishing open data, better outcomes can be delivered for residents, businesses, voluntary and public services.

Benefits and impact

There were a range of benefits for both the council and their partners:

For the council
Through the council wide open data working group there has been increased awareness of the value of open data. Users are now empowered to publish datasets they manage in an effective and efficient manner. A number of presentations and reports have also raised the profile of open data and how it will support public service reform, as well as local transparency.

For data users
The co-design and hack events allowed a range of data users to network and develop new project ideas, uses for the data, and provide useful feedback to data holders.

For the general public
Awareness raising through the arts was a particularly successful way to engage the general public with open data with more than 2,000 people visiting the exhibition of the works held at the Sheffield Institute of the Arts. The range of data available to the public has also benefited users with day to day activities. For example data on the platform allows individuals to view useful information geographically, such as their nearest pharmacy or cycle route. Additionally the air quality project has also allowed citizens to contribute to the ongoing discussion about air quality in the city.

Taking stock

Opening access to a range of data and engaging with local developers has created an awareness of data in Sheffield and has shown how this can best support individuals and groups. A programme of co-designed activities with the data platform have engaged people with air quality data and created a wider understanding of the issues around this.

Useful advice

When considering the development of a similar approach to that used in Sheffield it is worth remembering that:

  • Having a cross-cutting working group promotes knowledge sharing and engagement
  • Training teams in all council departments to publish their own data creates understanding and buy-in.
  • Community engagement and speaking to local groups, individuals and data developers about what they are doing, what they need and what they want is key to producing a useful and sustainable data tool.

For more information, visit:
1. Sheffield Socrata Data Store
2. Sheffield Open Data working group
3. The Sheffield Air Quality+ open data evaluation report
4. Making a difference with Data Event Sheffield

For more information about the Sheffield Air Quality+ project contact: [email protected]