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Local Government: Community code

Local Government: 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 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.

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.”

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.

McKenzie added: “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. 

“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.”

It is hoped that by the end of this year, 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’.”

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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