We took the Data Loop (a design-with-data tool) for a couple of outings last year, once at Blue Light Camp and once at a team meeting inside Devon County Council, and it continues to show its effectiveness. This time we took it to NotWestminster with the aim of running a workshop specifically around using the Data Loop on a real world issue related to democracy – opening up the data in the democratic process in some way to make it more useful.
Taking a look at a typical process – reporting a pothole – we worked our way round the loop a couple of times to think about how data flows in and out of different systems and departments within the council; what data needs to be extracted from that to enable a contractor to make the repairs, and what needs to come back in to show that it’s done; and what touch points there are for the public to report the fault, check its progress and complain if something goes wrong.
Surprisingly it seems that in some places a great deal of effort goes in to keeping some of the information hidden in case unscrupulous motorists deliberately drive over a newly-reported pothole so they can make a claim for their damaged suspension. We were very interested in how more openness could be used to head off that sort of negative behaviour – better communication and sharing of the locations so every pothole is avoidable perhaps? Add them to satnav maps so drivers could reroute around them?
The second point that caught our attention was what proportion of council spend per year goes on settling valid claims here, compared to what would have or should have been spent on fixing the fault in the first place. These numbers ought to be available, if you have the time to trawl the ‘Expenditure Over £500’ datasets every council is bound to publish, but in our experience these are difficult to analyse to that sort of level. What about internally? Shouldn’t a council officer be able to access the datasets to compare? Of course the answer is, it depends; on the technical capability of the fault reporting system, on the data formats behind complaints, on the appetite for data sharing within the legal department, on the capacity of all the officers involved to stop what they’re doing and provide what you’re asking for … lots of variables there to navigate.
And finally, what if, assuming we could gather all this data and more, what if we could take it all and add it to what we know about road condition and dates of rebuilding and resurfacing and the materials used and traffic counts and the weather patterns, and come up with a predictive model that would show where the next set of severe potholes was likely to occur? What if the average Highways department was equipped to carry out proactive repairs and maintenance rather than reacting all the time? Maybe there are councils with the resources to do this already, and if so we’d love to hear from them.
And one final thought from us; given that the first entry on the Data Loop was ‘resident tells Councillor about pothole’ … wouldn’t it be great if that conversation, or email, or letter, or phone call, or tweet – and the hundreds like it that councillors receive each month – could be captured and analysed and opened up for us to look at? The crucial thing about councillors casework is that it represents all the failure demand for a given council. All the cases where the thing wasn’t fixed, or the department didn’t call back with an update, or the letter wasn’t sent, or the computer said no; and the human being on the receiving end declined to let it pass, and decided to take it to someone who could do something about it.
This being the NotWestminster event, we had to come up with a project or action to take away and work on; but there isn’t really a big project in this. That’s the beauty and function of the tool we used – it surfaces the small changes that would make a big difference, things like tweaking the format of a data extract so it can be reused, or displaying information in a different format or visual presentation so it’s more digestible.
But here are our actions:
- Support our local authorities to be as open as possible about the faults and the progress made on them
- Work on comparing costs of claims vs repairs to see if something interesting shows up
- If all that fails, create a game that plots a route between the worst potholes within a 5-mile radius to give the maximum possible compensation claim value. ‘Angry Bikers’ has a nice ring to it, we think …