UNLOCKING VALUE FROM LOCAL DATA
Picture 48 million rows of data...
Written by: Simon Zimmerman, Director at Solomon UK.
Simon Zimmerman, Director at Solomon UK.
Read time: 6 minutes
Picture 48 million rows of data. Now take a team of writers and visual storytellers; a heavy metal fanatic with a PhD in data science; and, a couple of coders for good measure. That’s how it all began for Solomon.
Today, we offer a suite of intuitive software tools, designed for Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), Downtown Associations, Destination Management Organisations and other place making teams.
We help organisations to track and build better relationships; demonstrate and disseminate their positive impact to stakeholders; and be accountable and compliant.
I’d like to share a little about how we do it – using an example from our past. This is where it all started with Leeds City Council...
It Started with Bins!
Using funding we’d received from Innovate UK and with Leeds City Council as our partner, we began an 18-month research and development programme on experimenting with local data and finding ways to unlock value from it.
We started with bins; not very sexy, I know. But as we saw it, everyone has one and the data was easy to work with. Within a week we launched the “Find My Bin Day” web app. You could enter your address and get a list of collections for each domestic bin and set up notifications, so you didn’t forget to put your trash out. Hardly revolutionary but, as the council didn’t have an app at that time, it was something useful we could share.
Footfall data was our next target. Data Mill North had 15 years’ worth of data captured by Springboard cameras. We developed an interactive map that showed how footfall had changed over time. We also formed a partnership with a local university and with the help of one of their data science PhD students (the one who liked heavy metal, a lot!) we “trained an algorithm” and created a predictive model that could tell us how busy it was likely to be next week (for example) based on a variety of factors.
The 'devs' in our team felt strongly that we shouldn’t just create a tonne of “apps”. The primary success of our business had come from telling stories, and we didn’t want to lose sight of that. With that in mind, we threw a challenge to the storytellers and asked them to propose a theme that we could work on together. They came back with the concept of a series of videos / motion graphics exploring the impact of “air quality”.
Leeds is a really important place from a health data perspective, as the home of the NHS Digital. One of our colleagues had worked there, leading on an “open data” programme with the aim of making more data available to the public. He saw a link between air quality and health and got to work on exploring the data sets.
We took 48 million rows of data about everything from life expectancy, heart disease, stroke, asthma, rates of obesity, general census data, transport, and air quality. We crunched them together and made some compelling discoveries. Firstly, and frighteningly, between the place with the best air and that with the worst, there was a ten-year difference in life expectancy. Secondly, we discovered that air quality improved by 20% on the day the Tour De France set off from the centre of Leeds, owing to the reduction in traffic. Finally, there was an obvious link between air quality and prescriptions for asthma, and the potential for a huge cost saving exercise (each year, £14m is spent on asthma prescriptions in Leeds alone.) Problem, solution, benefit. Simple.
There were many other experiments, and that was a problem. Every project required a pile of work to a) make people aware of it, and b) get people using it. We needed to find a way of pulling all these different utilities together and the concept of a “Solomon civic dashboard” was born. So too was a master plan that we believed would see us roll our dashboard out to every local authority in the UK, making it possible for any citizen, anywhere, to get easy access to important information about where they lived and worked. Bus times; bin collections; road closures; doctors and dentist surgery ratings; local takeaway hygiene ratings; school places; empty houses; crime; footfall; weather; flood warnings; air quality… all the data about a place, in one place.
We were excited and we had support from the UK Cabinet Office to make it happen. We built a version for Leeds and another for York, and things were looking up. The only thing we didn’t have was a deep enough understanding of just how inconsistent data would be from one authority to another. Each had their own way of maintaining and publishing data, with often wildly different structures and formats. The work required to overcome these inconsistencies made it impossible to scale up. It was time for a reality check, and to pivot in a new direction. And, so we did.
Andrew helps us make it consistent!
It was Andrew Cooper, the CEO of LeedsBID, who presented us with a way forward. He saw value in the Dashboard we had originally created in Leeds citizens, but for his levy paying businesses. He wanted to give each business a window into the BID area, and a way to see what LeedsBID did for them on a case-by-case basis. Andrew had managed several BIDs of different shapes and sizes before landing in Leeds. In his experience a common problem was the lack of a database that was designed specifically for BIDs, that enabled them to track their member businesses and day-to-day contacts, while empowering them to capture the value they created through the work they undertook.
Fast forward to today and Solomon aims to relieve these pains for our BID customers. We also offer a similar solution for DMOs that incorporates some sales and sponsorship tracking tools too.
Crucially, what Solomon offers is a consistent way of recording data. This means that 50+ BIDs across the UK are capturing data in a way that is consistent and has “interoperability”, meaning we can compare and aggregate it easily. For example, when COVID-19 forced us into the first lockdown in March 2020, the UK Government asked BIDs to report on what proportion of their membership operated in the retail and hospitality sectors. For our customers, answering this question was as simple as running a report.
“That’s great Simon, thanks for sharing your story but what does it mean for me?” – I’m glad you asked!
The reason I wanted to share the story of Solomon with you is because I believe that every BID, DMO or Leisure & Retail destination can use our history to help them understand how to extract value from the data they hold. The key to it all is consistency and discipline.
You can only draw out key insights from your data if you go about collecting it diligently. When data sets are normalised and consistent in the way you collect them it will allow you to benchmark your performance year on year, against your peers – and most importantly of all against your business objectives.
Yes, of course there are tools like the one we offer – a CRM specifically for BIDs and DMOs – or what DestinationCore offer through their Insights Dashboard which do the hard work of collecting and making your data consistent (and I’d strongly recommend you work with experts who provide tools which can help you with the collection of data), but the collection of good data doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. It just needs to be consistent.