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Community code

Community code

With increasing numbers of people using mobile technology in their everyday lives, Scotland’s local authorities are racing to keep up. Councils hold huge amounts of data and by letting developers make safer use of this information, it is hoped new digital services can be created for members of the public.

With this in mind, innovation charity Nesta, which has a mission to help people and organisations bring ideas to life, recently confirmed funding as part of their Open Data Scotland programme, which will give four Scottish councils the opportunity to develop new digital services for their communities. The programme is linked up with the Code for Europe, a Europe-wide initiative which strives to solve local civic challenges by enabling agile temporary teams of developers to create solutions that are easily re-useable in other European cities.
In Scotland, Nesta has appointed four expert technologists who will support the development of digital public services using open data sets from local authorities in Edinburgh, Aberdeen, East Lothian and Clackmannanshire. The funding from Nesta will allow each expert to work with data held by the four councils to support the development of new digital public services in the area whilst sharing and learning from similar exercises taking place across Europe.

Jackie McKenzie, head of Innovation Programmes Scotland for Nesta, said: “Local authorities hold enormous amounts of data, by allowing digital developers to make safe use of that data by opening it up, they can develop new digital services that will provide useful new services for local people.”

Code for Europe strives to solve local civic challenges, by enabling temporary teams of developers to create solutions which are easily reusable in other European cities. Organisers believe that by placing developers at the heart of city halls they can enable cities and authorities to become more skilled in technological, user-driven innovation and bring new approaches to tackle civic problems. The project is overseen by a taskforce, made up of key representatives from the different partner organisations.

Speaking to Holyrood, McKenzie added: “We have recruited four technologists and they’re affiliated to the Code for Europe programme and are working in Scotland on societal and local issues of the four local authorities. We’ve got them for nine months and they’re going to create some interesting digital platforms which will help solve some of the societal issues in the local authority areas. The technologists are freelancers and will be collaborating across the areas. So we’ve got one in Aberdeen, two are based in Dundee and one is based in Edinburgh but are working for each local authority. 

“What’s interesting is this project forms part of a bigger programme which is Code for Europe. Code for Europe involves the cities of Barcelona, Berlin, Helsinki, Amsterdam, Manchester and London. The Scottish areas are joining in and what we’ve done is link in particularly with Amsterdam and Helsinki. So they are mentoring Aberdeen and Edinburgh and in turn, Aberdeen and Edinburgh are mentoring East Lothian and Clacks. It’s about upskilling people because Amsterdam and Helsinki have done this type of thing many times – they’ve done lots of coding applications. Edinburgh and Aberdeen have some experience in this area and are ahead of the curve in terms of other local authorities but East Lothian and Clackmannanshire have never done it before and it’s about supporting them. 

“[Recently] the four coders and about 11 other coders from across the European cities got together in Edinburgh for collaboration, sharing and so on. Everything they do is open source and open platform so anyone can take it from anywhere in the world, there’s a website, www.civicexchange.eu, and all of the apps or mobile websites will go on that and the codes and content, so you can look at what’s happened in other local authorities. 

“It’s about showing that actually, it doesn’t take lots of money to create new digital services, it is about skills. Usually these skills are not currently sitting within local authorities, so we have these technologists who are used to building mobile, web or app platforms. What’s also interesting is that although these are digital platforms which are owned by the local authority, they are open source, so anyone can take them and use them. They’re also highly interactive and the content becomes richer when citizens or visitors add their own information.”
Being part of the new project has been welcomed by the four Scottish local authorities. East Lothian Council chief executive, Angela Leitch, said the programme offers East Lothian the opportunity to develop a new app that will appeal to residents and visitors alike. She said: “An appointed developer will create an app using data already held by the council to provide some exciting new benefits fully utilising accessible technology available via smart phones and similar devices. Fuller details of this work will be announced at appropriate stages during the development.”

Councillor Alastair Rankin, finance and resources convener at City of Edinburgh Council, believes technology is key to ensuring Edinburgh is a “thriving and successful place to live and work”, and innovative programmes such as Code for Europe demonstrate “the breadth of ideas on offer”.

It is hoped that by the end of 2014, the different pieces of work will be launched. McKenzie has stressed that whatever is done, local people will be involved in the design. She added: “It’s all very well building something ‘whizzy’ but it has to be grounded in reality and in what local people actually want. Getting feedback at an early stage is absolutely crucial. It’s a new model of building a digital service but involving citizens from the ground up.

“It’s about saying, ‘how did you do that’ not just in the technological aspect but also in the civic aspect and the decision making. It’s really powerful and it isn’t costing lots of money, it’s just about saying, ‘let’s look at what others are doing and take the best of that and tweak it to suit us locally’.”

Clackmannanshire Council leader Gary Womersley said making the best use of digital technology to provide more effective and efficient services is a key strand of the council’s business improvement programme, Making Clackmannanshire Better. He added: “I am pleased that Clackmannanshire Council is involved in such an innovative programme. In line with our priorities, we are focusing our development resource on developing an application to support our early years work.

Ian Watt, government manager at Aberdeen City Council, said: “We are delighted to be part of this innovative programme. It will allow us to develop systems which tackle real issues affecting the citizens of Aberdeen by using the skills of our [technologist], utilising council data and by engaging with the wider Aberdeen developer community.”

In 2012, Nesta ran the Make it Local Scotland programme, which aimed to show how local authorities can work with digital media companies to unlock their data and provide really useful apps and web services for their citizens. It invited Scottish councils to submit ideas for digital services powered by their own data sets, which had a practical focus for local residents.
Five Scottish councils were selected, including one joint project: Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Orkney Islands. Each received up to £25,000 in funding to develop their digital services, in partnership with a digital media company.

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