From mental health rates to employment, housing providers can map their properties and community work against local statistics.
The lifespan of flagship government initiatives can be butterfly-short; the 'big society' was an astonishing example of policy launch, relaunch, redefinition and abandonment in less than 12 months. Some last longer but without ever achieving discernible results – the 'third way' delivered an endless stream of pamphlets and seminars, but achieved far less in terms of lasting impact.
Some initiatives launched with without fanfare, however, can start to drive structural shifts in the ways our society works, without imprinting themselves on the public consciousness or making it far beyond the specialist press. The government's open data white paper quietly fired the starting gun on a wave of innovation in the way citizens engage, understand and interact with the state, providing increasing access to information which help us understand our government and the communities we live in.
From being a nation characterised by relatively closed government, with information held close to decision-makers and rarely shared, the UK has become a world leader in terms of the availability of publicly-owned data. The radical shift that accompanies this promises to change both expectations and experiences of the way public services are provided at both national and local level in ways we are just starting to understand.
As David Hand noted earlier this year, "open data empowers communities: the truth about crime rates, educational achievement, social services and so on is laid bare… open data may even lead to more accurate conclusions and better decisions, as a wider variety of interested parties have the opportunity to examine the facts".
Change rarely happens for one reason alone; often it is driven by a coming together of factors. In the case of open data, it is a combination of newly available datastreams, increasingly sophisticated and affordable mapping technology and an explosion in innovation driven by new tools to create both web and mobile apps capable of delivering services that, until recently, required specialist staff and expensive technology to access.
The housing sector is starting to lever the power of data and mapping to drive their businesses. Andy Bradley from Aster highlighted the great work it is doing on the Guardian Housing Network last month. Over the last few weeks, Hact has be holding seminars in Manchester, Birmingham and London with the newly launched Open Data Institute at which Aster, Places for People and Midland Heart will all showcase what they have achieved in their businesses through levering the power of data to improve their businesses and deliver more for their communities.
HACT has also launched its own data tool for the housing sector. Together with OCSI we have created Community Insight, a web-based information service allowing housing providers to access, analyse and report on a huge range of publicly available data sources relevant to their communities.
Community Insight has been designed from scratch for use by staff at all levels within the housing sector. It provides graphic mapping of social indicators in housing provider neighbourhoods, creating community profiles on demand. It is based on the latest data released by national government and other agencies, and will always been up to date.
Like the best web and mobile apps, Community Insight is designed to be simple to use: a housing provider simply uploads data about their stock and can instantly generate maps and reports on the areas they work in.
It doesn't just overlay stock on top of data maps: it allows custom definition of neighbourhoods (literally by drawing on a map), bespoke reporting and the ability to compare need and change against other neighbourhoods and communities. Part of it will also be free for anyone to use from early next year – we aim to have the site open to all in February 2013.
Using Community Insight requires no special training in GIS mapping or data analysis. Anyone in any organisation can use the information and generate their own reports. It is designed so anyone can pick up, understand and use it within 90 seconds of logging in for the first time. It reduces the burdens on data and analytical staff to provide community-focused information, providing strategic information for those making decision about how to spend resources, and where. Thanks to the data that is freely available, housing professionals can have instant access to social data for all staff who need it – when they need it.
Matt Leach is chief executive of the HACT
(This blog orginally appeared on the Guardian Housing Network website)