MyAgenda: Stephen Blackburn

Data Mill North has ambitious plans to become the best resource for open data across the English north. Stephen Blackburn, senior information governance officer at Leeds City Council, leading on Data Mill North, takes our weekly Q&A test.

What’s top of your agenda for change?
“Working collaboratively across the English north region to realise economies of scale, improve transparency and work on common goals and issues. Across our towns, cities and even rural environments, a lot of the issues that affect citizens and communities are similar. Likewise, members of the public don’t necessarily recognise the organisational and political boundaries as we do in local government. Working collaboratively not only brings about internal efficiencies but helps deliver better and more consistent outcomes for citizens.”

What are you doing about it?
“In August, we rebranded Leeds Data Mill to Data Mill North and encouraged other local authorities to join us in our quest to be the best website for open data. Not only does this mean that individual local authorities don’t need to invest separately in setting up and hosting their own sites; it also provides the opportunities for us to work more closely together, publishing datasets to common standards and getting involved in joint hack days focusing on common issues.”

How did you find yourself doing what you do now?
“I originally led on ensuring the council was compliant with publishing datasets listed in the government’s local government transparency code. We always recognised, however, that there was a vast resource of untapped data that we also wanted to identify and publish. From initially identifying and publishing open data for the council, we broadened our focus to encourage organisations to do the same across the city, and now region. Somehow along the way I also found myself managing the Data Mill website rather than just contributing content to it.”

How can technology help secure the change you want?
“Websites such as Data Mill North facilitate the publication of data in an easy way and helps organisations such as ours become more open and transparent. Additionally, councils have increasingly less money to deliver service. This new approach to openness allows a more collaborative approach between all sections of society to help shape where we live – whether that be enabling the analysts and ‘armchair auditors’ to better understand the city or allow developers and technologists to produce new and innovate websites, apps and devices that help us all in our hectic lives.”

How are you using digital to deliver change through your own work?
“We have held a number of our urban sustainable development labs, which bring together service users, providers and technologists to work together to come up with new solutions to a specific problem or issue. The council delivers all manner of services from waste collection to addressing social isolation and street lighting to child safeguarding. Digital plays an increasing part in helping us delivering services more efficiently; our Labs aim to produce new prototype solutions for us to pilot, trial and scale up.

What’s the project you’ve worked on that has made the most difference to date?
“The product which is the most advanced is the Leeds Bins app. Using open data detailing bin collection routes and dates, an app was created through one of our development labs that provides information on local recycling centres, tips on what to put in your recycling bin and alerts to remind you to put your bin out. This solution helps us provide a more efficient service, increase recycling rates and contributes to savings as we no longer send out costly letters to every household to advise of collection changes, such as at Christmas.”

What’s the biggest challenge for those wanting to make a difference through technology?
“The biggest challenge that we’re coming across is scalability. Through our development labs we have designed and prototyped a number of brilliant new and innovative solutions that could help transform lives. We can easily carry out small-scale pilots with citizens and make changes where necessary. Our next challenge is that once we think we’re ready to take on the world – how do we do that?”

What technologies are most exciting you in the space right now?
“The world of internet of things is extremely exciting – if not a little scary! Can we imagine a world without smartphones? Probably not. What will the world be like in 10 years’ time? Our fridges creating shopping lists, driverless cars ever-present and our homes managing themselves because they’ve learned our living patterns. IoT, however, provides so much more. As we get older, none of us want to lose our independence, smart devices will enable us to live in our own homes for longer and in control of own lives – it’s this that I find really exciting.”

ihxs3ugdWhat would you have done differently in your work looking back?
“The world we work in is new and fluid – and that’s what makes it exciting – and sometimes there’s nothing been done by anyone before to refer to. In respect of open data, I would say we should’ve perhaps been a little more focused at the beginning. The original datasets published were probably a bit random. I would also say we should’ve starting working more collaboratively between organisations sooner. That said, Data Mill is still not even two years old and we’ve still done an awful lot in such a short space of time.”

What’s your piece of advice to people looking to do good through digital?
“Keep at it and don’t give up! There will always be people who just ‘don’t get it’ or ‘don’t want to get it’. The work we’re involved is ‘the new world’ and just like the transition from the house phone to the mobile and now the smartphone, eventually it becomes the norm and people forget how far they’ve come. I have much less resistance in the work I’m doing now than I did even two years ago. Once people see the benefits, I find they buy-in pretty easily. Ultimately, the work we’re involved in is by and large a sales job.”

Data Mill North this month won an Open Data Institute award for best open data publisher. Read more.