Open Cities Graphic final

The Open Data Institute (ODI) has been exploring the concept of making cities more open for several years. In 2019, we started to explore the benefit, importance and value of this, with a particular focus on the role of data. By ‘open’, we mean cities should embrace principles of openness, such as:

  • open government
  • open data
  • open innovation
  • open infrastructure
  • open standards
  • open source

Nearly two years on from our early exploration of the topic, we’re coming to the end of our ‘Using data in the public sector’ project. Throughout this project, we’ve worked with decision makers from across a range of cities through workshops and webinars to help them adopt practical approaches to becoming more open – using our Data and Public Services Toolkit – and have brought them together to learn and share knowledge.

In this worknote, we will reflect on the main lessons we have learned throughout running the project in the last year.

Recap of the project – webinars and workshops

In 2020, we ran two Open Cities workshops – one in-person with Bristol Connected City, and one online with Coventry City Council. The goal of these bespoke workshops was to give attendees the opportunity to understand how they can best use data to make their city work better for businesses, communities and citizens. To do this, the workshops focused on what data the cities already had access to, and helped participants to re-evaluate their current projects and make plans for the future.

The tools provided have offered us a way to navigate through the data challenges we face as an organisation and champion data issues amongst colleagues

– workshop participant

The ODI provided some compelling training on key aspects of open data and really helped me understand the ethical dimensions of project planning for data intensive projects.

– workshop participant

We also ran three webinars, which had over 650 attendees (nationally and internationally). These included:

The goal of these webinars was to help city authorities make better use of data to improve access to information for citizens and enable innovators, and to make public services more cost-effective, more efficient and more accessible to citizens

Gain great insight into use open data in government, definitely would recommend to others

– webinar participant

Lessons learned

Taking an international approach

Originally, our focus for 2020 was connecting with the UK’s local and city authorities by running workshops at a city-wide level. However, we found that it became difficult to engage with stakeholders in this way, as they experienced dramatic shifts in their budgets and priorities due to the global crisis of Covid-19.

Instead, we shifted our focus to international collaboration. Because of the global lockdowns, we realised that there was an opportunity to bring together relevant stakeholders from around the world through online discussion meetings, with a lower barrier to participation from international representatives. This proved to be a worthwhile shift: while cities all have unique geographies, people, cultures, politics and histories, they can face common challenges – for example, around health, climate, housing, jobs and education. A city might have more in common with another city on the other side of the world, than with smaller towns and villages immediately around it. And, when asked whether they thought they could benefit from being part of an international peer network for sharing learnings and tools, 56% of our surveyed webinar attendees said ‘Yes’ (with an additional 40% answering ‘Maybe’).

Great to hear ideas, experience of elsewhere and examples of best practice

– webinar participant

With this in mind, in February 2021 we convened an international cities roundtable discussion which had city officials and city policymakers from Central, South, and North America, Australasia, and Europe, to explore the benefits and challenges of data sharing and collaboration with data across the public, private and third sectors; and to identify and share good practice in data-sharing in civic projects. We have also produced a summary note of the roundtable discussion.

Informing policy

We’ve also found that, by working with these cities and understanding their perspectives, we’ve gathered insights and use-cases that have helped inform our public policy activities. For example, in our response to the UK’s National Data Strategy consultation, we argued for the importance of regional or local authorities developing their local data ecosystems.

We also recognise the importance of civic authorities and an international evidence-base to national policy-makers. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, many countries were beginning to develop or announce their national data or AI strategies; and the pandemic has accelerated global trends towards digitisation. City ecosystems can typically develop faster than national ecosystems and so are of strategic interest to national governments and multilateral bodies. Additionally, the majority of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, and so what happens in cities, and the policies that are developed for cities or implemented in them, will affect a higher proportion of people.

I'm working on a Data Transformation Framework for [a devolved administration] and your tools are very useful components

– webinar participant

Get involved

We have produced an international roundtable discussion summary note, which includes a selection of use-cases, resources, toolkits and reports around civic data-sharing projects and activities from around the world. Do have a look to find out more about the roundtable.

Going forward, we’re looking into seeding a longer-term international peer network of city officials and policymakers to continue supporting each other as they develop experience and good practice in this space. If you’d be interested in joining this network, or helping to convene it, we’d love to hear from you – please get in touch.