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Open Data in Brighton and Hove

The following guest post is from Greg Hadfield, a former Fleet Street journalist and internet entrepreneur, and founder of the Open-data Brighton and Hove group. Greg is also director of strategic projects at Cogapp, and a member of the Open Knowledge Foundation’s Working Group on Open Government Data.

Brighton and Hove is a special place. Or so many of the people who live there believe. I’m one of them.

Our city is one of 20 in the United Kingdom where the population is more than 250,000 and where the local council has the full set of responsibilities associated with a “unitary authority” (or metropolitan district).

There is a well-defined sense of place, in a space bounded by the sea to the south and the South Downs to the north. Three parliamentary constituencies map almost exactly to city boundaries. More than half the people who work in Brighton and Hove travel less than five kilometres to work; a quarter travel less than two kilometres.

In truth, nearly all human beings lead “small” lives. Most immediately, and most often, we live in a small society – not a big society. By 2050, 70 per cent of us will live in cities.

Significantly, Brighton has a history of innovation ever since it was connected to London by the railway network in the 1840. The line was the first main line in the country to be electrified throughout. The city has been shaped by its position in a real-world network. It is a hub as well as a destination.

Since the dawn of the internet age, Brighton has been a leader. It had two internet service providers (ISPs) in the 1990s, when there were only a handful in the whole country.

In Wired Sussex, it has a well-established and vibrant network of more than 2,100 companies and freelancers in creative, digital and information technology industries.

It is uniquely well-placed to enjoy the benefits that will accrue to the most networked cities in an increasingly-networked world – in short, cities that that “think like the web”.

Furthermore, in Brighton & Hove Bus and Coach Company, it has one of the most advanced bus networks, complete with real-time information at smart bus-stops (and on screens in pubs and bars), talking bus stops, bus information by SMS, and soon-to-be-introduced swipecard technology.

The city council – under John Barradell, its new forward-looking chief executive – is beginning to embrace a new openness, the first steps along the road to creating a local authority that the city can trust and be proud of.

Senior individuals within Sussex Police and within Surrey & Sussex Probation Trust welcome fresh opportunities to engage with citizens. Two renowned higher education institutions – the University of Sussex and the University of Brighton – are building closer links with the city they inhabit and the citizens they serve.

The seeds of transformational change are scattered in fertile soil. Open data can accelerate the process of germination.

If a rich mass of city-specific data about city-specific services – transport, education, health, housing, social care, voluntary organisations, and so on – is made freely available, the possibilities are unimaginable. The results will be magnificently, disruptively unpredictable. Just as they were when the web was in its infancy in the early 1990s.

One idea might be a multi-channel “open 311” service for citizens with non-emergency needs who seek help, quickly, easily and 24/7.

Data generated by citizens seeking – telephone, SMS, email, web, app – can identify gaps in provision, build a knowledge base for immediate use, and inform strategic solutions in the longer term.

An “open 311″ approach can enable new web-based applications that use real-time data to allow citizens to track the status of repairs or improvements, while also allowing them to make new requests for services. The possibilities of such an approach are articulated in early services such as SeeClickFix.

There are already significant lessons to be learned from the North American experience. Specifically, it is clear that first-class, round-the-clock service – by telephone, web and mobile – is fundamental, supported by robust citizen-relationship-management software.

The Open-data Brighton and Hove group, however, seeks to be citizen-centred, not service-centred or product-focused. There is no roadmap, no project plan. Open data is a means to an end. But the means are always connected to the end. In this context, the means are collaborative – and the end is social.

An open-data Brighton and Hove can be the crucible for a civic co-production, which includes rather than excludes or marginalises. One thing is certain: the fruits of our efforts will be like nothing we have yet dreamed.

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