Thomas Kohut

©Thomas Kohut

Even ‘dry’ data can mobilise citizens, says service design expert

Tue Nov 13, 2018
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We talk to service design expert Thomas Kohut about using design and data to create social impact, ahead of the ODI Summit

Thomas Kohut, Project Director at Uscreates tells us why people need space to play with data without a goal, and how open data can be used to address inequalities and improve lives

Thomas will be speaking on the ‘Redesigning public services’ panel at the ODI Summit

Hi Thomas! Tell us about what you do.

Uscreates was set up around 13 years ago as a company which uses design methods to improve lives and have a positive impact on the world. It recently teamed up with FutureGov, an organisation that uses technology and design to create up to date public services.

We work with any organisation that is trying to improve lives

We do a mixture of insight work – gathering evidence about people’s lives – and working with all sorts of organisations to make the services they offer more user-centred, intuitive, effective, cost-effective and enjoyable for the people who use them.

Who do you partner with in your mission to improve lives?

We work with any organisation that is trying to improve lives. A lot of my clients are local authorities. I’ve worked with them around things like homelessness; careers advice and guidance; health and equalities; and generally helping them understand their population better.

How are you helping with careers advice?

We worked with Doncaster Council to find ways of opening up the data they and their partners held about career options for young people – data on the type and quality of courses available.

The project involved conducting interviews with young people and careers advisors, working with data scientists to see what could be done by bringing that data together, and creating a couple of prototypes.

I mean, how dry is that? It’s really dry data…But even something that dry can spark citizens to mobilise.

Can you give us some examples of when open data has had a positive social impact?

My colleagues are working with Bloomberg Philanthropies in the United States, supporting the Mayors Challenge.

There are two really interesting examples from this project.

  • Grand Rapids, Michigan: citizen involvement in town planning

Large corporate developers are building at quite a fantastic rate, and there has been some suspicion from citizens about all of this building work with seemingly with little say from the local population. So the local government opened up the planning data, mainly in the spirit of transparency.

But once citizens saw the data, this catalysed them to have much more say in the planning process. They’ve now set up citizen panels to help make decisions and inform the planning process in a much more consistent way.

  • Boston: expectations of your ‘lived environment’

In Boston, they opened up telephone data about sidewalk repairs. Basically, people call up this number to complain about the fact there’s a big hole in their sidewalk. The data showed that all of those calls were coming from more affluent areas, so those affluent areas were constantly being made better because residents were calling, and the much poorer areas were just not using this service.

So it sparked an interesting conversation about affluence, spread of resources, and how you might have to instigate engagement and repairs without somebody waiting for the public to do it. And also about your expectation of your ‘lived environment’ – whether you expect it to be well kept or not.

So that’s a really nice example of how just opening up data sparked debate around inequality. It’s so easy to do, and it’s had a real impact in local authority about how they target their resources in different areas according to poverty and deprivation.

So seemingly dull data about repairs can spark innovation?

Yes. I mean, how dry is that? It’s really dry data, you would think: who’s calling up about sidewalk repairs, and planning data. But even something that dry can spark citizens to mobilise. So even if you think it’s quite dry and uninspiring, it actually sparks action.

And what are you most excited about for the ODI Summit?

I’m excited about having a conversation around the use of data that is positive and excitable. So much of the conversations around data over the last six to nine months have been about restrictions – about what can’t be done with people’s data.

As part of its collaboration with Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council, Uscreates developed tools to help local authorities to think about how open data can be incorporated into their services. This project was funded by / part of the ODI’s Research and Development Programme, as part of our research into new service delivery models.