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Understanding how interest-based communities are built and can be strengthened can play an important role to address some of our biggest societal challenges.

The digital consultancy ODI Leeds undertook a research project to establish a method of setting up ad hoc community interest groups. It explored how to make such communities sustainable and how to help them to retain their momentum beyond the initial set-up phase. Its research proposes that many of the lessons learned germinating such ad hoc formed interest groups can be generalised to describe best practice and will be applicable to the formation of early-stage data initiatives. ODI Leeds is an ODI Node and a separate legal entity from ODI HQ. ODI Nodes are a franchise approach launched in 2012 aimed at accelerating open data capability in local regions in the UK and across the world.

In 2020–21, we set up a stimulus fund as part of the fourth year of the ODI’s R&D programme – funded by Innovate UK – and our broader programme of work on data institutions. The fund aimed to help explore approaches that enable trustworthy and ethical data sharing to help citizens and businesses lower their impact on the environment, improve public services and save lives.

The pattern has emerged from noticing commonalities between a number of different groups we set up under the ODI Leeds umbrella. Each had a general aim, but no objectives - but by working in the open we have enabled great things to happen

– Giles Dring, Head of Delivery, ODI Leeds

Key facts and figures

  • ODI Leeds published a Collaborative Community Playbook, presenting case studies to outline how to build and sustain an interest-based community that comes together to use the power of data to solve a shared challenge.
  • The Collaborative Community Playbook provides insights into cost and revenue models that can support approaches to community building as well as models to meet its operational and strategic challenges.
  • ODI Leeds outlines a framework of how such ad hoc communities can transition into becoming a data-access initiative, a data institution or a data trust by prototyping how an institution can act as a host for the community.

What was the challenge?

Some problems are best solved through collective action. For example, helping communities to tackle the fallout of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic requires health and social care providers, local authorities and charities to work together. Sharing insights through data can be an essential part of such collaborations.

In March 2020 ODI Leeds responded to the COVID-19 Pandemic by launching an initiative under a #OpenDataSavesLives theme. The aim of this initiative was to accelerate the national response to Covid-19 by removing barriers to collaboration between different public and private sectors service providers.

As part of the discovery, ODI Leeds wanted to research and develop a methodology that outlines how to make such informal collaborative communities like #OpenDataSavesLives work. It wanted to understand what can drive their successes and what support can enable them to maintain their momentum.

We set the date and provided the social infrastructure for the discussions to take place. We had no conception of how long it would run for, but we committed to supporting it for as long as it was viable and useful

– Giles Dring, Head of Delivery, ODI Leeds

How is ODI Leeds solving the problem?

ODI Leeds has published a Collaborative Community Playbook to document its approaches to innovation: collaboration by setting up ad hoc inter-organisational networks around sharing data and services for the benefit of all.

It analyses case studies such as the #OpenDataSavesLives initiatives to understand how a loose informal association of health professionals who saw a benefit in sharing data to combat Covid-19 can graduate into becoming a data-access initiative.

In the playbook, ODI Leeds presents an outline of a lifecycle and common factors that underlie the formation of interest communities. This includes a strong core idea to bring communities together; a host that is able to invest time and resources to facilitate such collaborations; and an agenda that is set by the participants.

Moreover, ODI Leeds explored how successful collaborations may engage in a range of different activities to use data to solve a shared challenge. This may include lightweight solutions such as establishing an agreement on how to work together. In other cases, this may lead to sustained engagements such as engaging in data landscaping or combining forces to develop tools, standards or dashboards.

In the Collaborative Community Playbook, ODI Leeds demonstrates that if the right conditions are met, it is possible to graduate an ad hoc interest community into a self-sustaining data-access initiative. However, it also emphasises that it can be difficult to replicate such successes, if there is not a strong enough cause and benefit to sustain communities to work together, in which case a collaboration fizzles out.

What was the impact of taking this approach?

The project has provided ODI Leeds with an opportunity to review, reflect and formalise its own working practice. It laid the foundation to understand how its own method of enabling community engagement to further innovation can also lead to the development of more established initiatives.

The use cases demonstrate that a community may be formed to meet a short-term need, but in doing so there is also an option to scale such initiatives and uncover a long-term solution. The pattern of building collaborative communities can be seen as a way of incubating potential future data initiatives and data institutions.

As part of the life cycle assessment, ODI Leeds shares its insights on what support is required to graduate an informal collaboration into a formal entity able to become a data-access initiative. It outlines how additional partners or collaborators to host the emerging data initiative may help to mature and formalise the collaboration. In addition, it presents a business model that demonstrates how to finance and provide operational support to sustain such initiatives.

Open Data Saves Lives began after a conversation with people from Beautiful Information at an ODI Leeds event in mid-2019. It came into its own during early 2020 with the response to COVID. It’s fitting that Beautiful Information and ODI Leeds have worked ever more closely to formalise the initiative and maintain the momentum generated over the course of 18 months. We’re now at the point that we can start to tackle and support innovative ways to share and collaborate to support significant benefits across the healthcare sector

– Giles Dring, Head of Delivery, ODI Leeds

Learning and simulations from this project will be applicable and extensible to other emerging data initiatives. It will help those establishing such collaborations to understand the social and economic dynamics that can sustain innovation. It will help decision makers to understand the positive impact such collaborative communities can make and the investment needed to set up and sustain them.

Lessons learned

  1. Throughout the project ODI Leeds has been struck by how its looser, less structured approach could work hand-in-hand with more planned approaches to shaping and managing data initiatives. The team feels that an agenda set by a collaborative community would enable a low-investment early iteration/exploration of the challenges and opportunities within the domain. More recognisable data initiatives could emerge from this hothouse environment.
  2. When running the #OpenDataSavesLives initiatives ODI Leeds started to understand that the #OpenDataSavesLives ‘Brand’ is recognised as a positive one in the context of health. The current #OpenDataSavesLives data initiative is more sustainable as a result of the groundwork of the past year. This is a potentially important consideration for other data initiatives.
  3. A collaborative community can be a great way of experimenting with and developing a concept within a given problem domain. However, understanding how to approach the community-building process can be difficult. ODI Leeds found it useful to view the problem space through the Cynefin Framework – it helped the team to decide whether an informal or more structured approach would work best.

What next

ODI Leeds will continue to bring people together around a shared issue to nurture the environment which enables innovation, resource sharing and knowledge building. It is now working on the 'Radically Open Recovery project, led by Tom Forth at ODI Leeds, which brings communities together to explore how they can use data and innovation to support the post-pandemic recovery.

If you are interested in the research of ODI Leeds please read the report: ‘Open Data Saves Lives’ and listen to this ODI Friday lunchtime lecture.

Find out more

If you are interested in the research or work ODI is doing into data institutions and data access initiatives please get in touch with a member of the team.

Other recipients of the data access stimulus fund award were Open Climate Fix, Your Dsposal, DNV, Collections Trust, Open Data Manchester and Etic Lab. Find out more about the stimulus fund and what we learned here.