OD_MapWhen you are commissioning new services for a community how often do you use live data to design services? Do you know current level of different needs in the areas you commission for? Do you know how that need has changed in the last months or year? If the answer to any of those questions is no then open data could revolutionise the way you work.

The common misconception with the debate about open data is that it is the practice of public sector bodies releasing, into the wild, data sets that they already own. Although that is one element of the open data debate there is another aspect of creating new data sets from within communities. Many of the organisations that provide services in communities (public sector, voluntary sector and private sector) know a great deal about the communities they serve and the common issues that affect day to day life. Taking that latent knowledge out of those organisations and organising it so it can be aggregated together, provides a powerful tool for inform the sort of services that need to be commissioned in an area, but also how that need changes over time.

Although the process of bringing together information that exists across often very different organisations sounds complicated, it isn’t. As we have explored doing it through the organisations we work with, we have found that in fact it’s quite easy to do.

There are two ingredients that organisations need to put in place in order to make collection manageable and more importantly usable.

  1. A common method or recording issues
  2. A willingness to explore wider issues

In building our Risk Tracker tool we took a decision that it needed to be able to demonstrate impact but it also needed to provide useful commissioning data. This is why we have added functions that automatically identify whether clients live in areas of deprivation, we know this is useful information. Likewise we know there is a benefit in collecting information in a common format. To that end we have identified nearly 100 common issues that people present to services, and using the definitions contained in National Outcome Frameworks, we help organisations record those issues as they arise. Using common definitions we can be sure that when one service records an issue with unsuitable housing, it means the same thing as the organisation next door.

This has created a common method of recording issues. This means that the data from one organisation can be aggregated with that of another to create a picture of an area. In addition using IDs we can ensure that there isn’t a duplication of individuals.

We encourage the organisations we work with to try and get a full understanding of all the issues an individual might need support with. That means recording those issues that the organisation they are talking to might have no experience of resolving. We do this for a number of reasons, mainly because so many issues in an individuals life are related, but also to improve the way that services work together. Dealing with single issues in isolation is not likely to be productive.

This suggested approach is not original; it’s the basis of Making Every Contact Count (MECC). We think that principles of MECC also provide an opportunity to collect data on patterns of need.

As data is collected on the wide range of issues that clients present to services, our Risk Tracker system can produce simple anonymised reports to show need. We take all of the issues presented to a service and report this at Post Code sector level (approximately 10,000 households). When joined with neighbouring organisations this draws a very complex picture of what people are self identifying as need in an area.

As this data  is also linked to dates it also demonstrates how need can change over time.

There are a number of uses that this sort of data can be used for. It can test the assumptions that are made on the prevalence of need contained in national data sets. It can test the impact of opening new services and it can also suggest correlations between needs and local events. For example has the closure of a large local employer coincided with an increase in benefit claims or financial hardship?

It can create better and more locally responsive commissioning.

In developing our  Risk Tracker system we have found that building the tools to achieve this has been comparatively easy. The next challenge is building an understanding amongst commissioners that live data on current levels of need is something that they can quite reasonably expect.