We caught up with Gavin Beckett, chief enterprise architect at Bristol city council, to discuss open data and designing smart cities
This year at Big Data Week, Gavin Beckett, chief enterprise architect at Bristol city council, shared Bristol’s story: the council has opened up its data, so it can share information about how it is saving money with other councils and government departments.
This year at Big Data Week, Gavin Beckett, chief enterprise architect at Bristol city council, shared Bristol’s story: the council has opened up its data, so it can share information about how it is saving money with other councils and government departments. We asked Beckett about sharing, problem solving and the risks of open data.
Is it difficult sharing data between central and local government?
Not so much any more, as a lot of the returns are now online. It used to be a big issue, and one of the reasons some organisations have had difficulty, but times have moved on since then.
How can data and an open source approach be used when tackling changes like the government’s welfare reforms?
How does technology and open source support anything? Technologies sit right at the bottom chain of things you change. You need to change the ways you operate and think about city and community and council. In those changes you will want to use new technologies to support new approaches. If you are trying to spend as little as possible on back office, while spending more on frontline services, then obviously accessing open source technologies and working with small companies – which work in a fast and agile way – can help.
Does integrating data mean job losses?
The reality is, forget open source, we have to cut jobs. Reductions in funding are so extreme that there are no options; we have been given less money. Local government has very little money and has to change the way services are provided, the structure of things and reducing the number of staff is part of that. That leaves very few options as that is the primary thing that’s going on as money is being cut. Further down the line you might be using open source. There is a link, but in the situation of having to cut the jobs first, open source stuff is used afterwards.
In New York the mayor is using “geek squads” to solve the city’s problems. What is happening here in the UK?
Our council has picked this [idea] up in a number of ways. I wouldn’t say we are being as innovative as New York yet, but we are aspiring that way. We have several programmes at work around what is called “smart city” technologies and intelligent council programmes. We are using data to improve our intelligence. In Bristol we are lucky to have lots of innovative and creative companies working [with us] on a number of things. A start up is identifying cycle routes that are most used.
Can local people help councils produce and understand data?
You have to offer the opportunity, say: “Here is what we want to do with data and here is why you can trust us.” But is has to be down to the citizens to choose to do that. With community data there is another interesting organisation in Bristol, a community organisation, who [work on] skills and sustainable development. They are making a dashboard of how much energy their community uses and putting it up on screen, so communities can see what is going on.
How do you manage the risks inherent in sharing and using council data?
Yes, there are risks, but it is about balancing and being honest about these risks. There are benefits to allowing us to hold data about people and then there are risks. These technologies are already used by very large banks. Being clear and open about what we are doing is important. Companies such as Tesco and Facebook have a huge amount of personal data that people willingly give up: we aren’t doing anything different to that.
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