OpenActive is a community-led initiative that aims to use open data to tackle the problem of inactivity in the UK. There are 16.9 million (37.2%) adults in England who don’t exercise enough. Research shows that one fifth of people have been put off doing a physical activity because it was too difficult to find or book online.

The Open Data Institute (ODI) has stewarded the initiative since 2016, and is an example of one of our data access initiatives. These initiatives aim to create social and economic impact by embedding good data practices, a solid data infrastructure and business models to address a sector-wide problem.

OpenActive in a snapshot:

  • 222,909 physical activity sessions openly published every month
  • Over 600 activity types listed, from angling to Zumba
  • 48 physical activity providers publishing data 
  • 44 organisations using open data in digital products to help people get active

An external assessment of the impact of OpenActive estimates:

  • the avoidance of up to 100 premature deaths per year
  • up to £3 million per year in health costs avoided
  • up to a £20 million per year increase in productivity

Lessons for creating a data access initiative for sector change

We’ve captured five key learnings from OpenActive that can be applied in any data access initiative.

1. Build strong use cases Data access initiatives are often ambitious, with bold mission statements. It’s best to focus on specific use cases to break down your long-term objectives into manageable problems and corresponding solutions. These then guide the steps needed to create tangible impact and value.

Invest in an extended period doing user research to find use cases and prioritise them based on the time and resources you have to tackle them. These may change over time – some won't work, and you'll discover new ones as you go. Solid research using different methods will give you an understanding of what the problem is that you are trying to solve for your target end user, and will keep you focused.

2. Choose the right method of intervention There is no one-size fits all, and your approach will depend on the sector and what you want to achieve. While funded through Sport England, OpenActive is a community-led initiative, which sometimes requires collaboration between organisations that are competitors or have conflicting agendas. A neutral third-party organisation like the ODI helps navigate competing priorities, find the common ground and create alignment through collaboration.

One way Sport England champions OpenActive is by including it in its Leisure Services Delivery Guidance - a ‘procurement toolkit’ to support local authorities to develop sport and physical activity. In other initiatives, change may be driven by regulation, rather than just endorsement. In finance, the UK’s nine largest banks and building societies must make data available through Open Banking.

3. Build on what is already happening in the sector Look for ideas at the proof-of-concept stage that have the potential to scale. Before it received funding from Sport England, OpenActive was a prototype open data exchange, designed by a handful of organisations in the sector.

Identify existing initiatives that you can align and collaborate with. The OpenActive mission is closely linked to the health sector as exercising can significantly improve an individual’s health and wellbeing. For this reason, we’re exploring expanding the remit of OpenActive to support use cases such as social prescribing with key stakeholders.

As well as looking at future opportunities, it's important to reflect on what hasn’t worked. Before OpenActive was even envisioned, Sport England tried to solve the challenge of finding relevant physical activities by building a nationwide centralised activity finder, Spogo. This approach quickly proved unsustainable, because of a lack of access to data about what and where activities are available, as well as the huge burden carried by the organisation needed to maintain the curated content. Spogo provided valuable lessons that helped shape OpenActive.

4. Balance incumbents vs. challengers ‘Incumbents’ are large, established organisations that will benefit your initiative through their reach and influence in a sector. However, incumbents tend to be risk-averse and need a higher level of evidence before investing in change. ‘Challengers’ tend to be startups or other innovators. They help drive the initiative, as they can move quickly, adapt to changing situations, and help motivate incumbents to keep up.

You’ll need different strategies to engage and motivate each group.

5. Find the right balance of expertise You need a balance of technical, innovation and sector expertise from the outset. Hiring the right people and forming strong collaborations with the sector can help you identify and deliver suitable use cases.

The sports and physical activity sector in England is extremely fragmented. In order to achieve sector-wide adoption for OpenActive, we invested heavily in community engagement at the beginning of the initiative, identifying key stakeholders with influencing and convening power that could drive adoption and motivate others to join too. For this reason, last year, ukactive, a not-for-profit industry association, joined the ODI as stewards of OpenActive to help accelerate engagement within their existing network of organisations in the leisure sector.

The ODI’s experience with OpenActive provides valuable lessons to drive innovation within a sector through data sharing. 

These are just some of the learnings we gathered running such initiatives. If you have a sector-wide challenge that a collaborative data access initiative could help solve, we can help identify the right approach and scope what the journey could look like. Get in touch at [email protected]