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Beyond London? Your Views on a Schools Atlas we can Share, Scale, and Improve

It’s been two years since we last wrote about the London Schools Atlas on this blog.  In the intervening period, amidst a number of enhancements, we’ve given it an all-new user interface and updated with the latest data available from the DfE.  As the title to this post indicates, we now have a decision before us – keeping true to our ‘open source roots’, we are asking how can we open the London Schools Atlas to other parts of the country so that we can all drive its further development, encourage its wider adoption by school place planners and the public alike, and generally spread the benefit?

The Back Story

The success of the Atlas has been in making available to the public information which would otherwise have been locked away, and which allows them to make more informed, better decisions about an important stage in their child’s development.

The value of school census data has been greatly improved by intelligently combining it with other sources of data (from demographic projections, to individual pupil level attainment through to travel times) and presenting it in a form which makes it accessible to the average citizen.  This as well as meeting a range of broader analytical needs of local authorities.

The development of the Atlas is an example of what can be achieved with a critical mass of technical expertise and a focus on improving the information available to citizens.  It was created entirely in-house by the GLA’s Intelligence Unit at minimal cost, with a handful of officers fitting development and ongoing maintenance around their other duties.

The level of technical resource the GLA can call on is by no means typical of that available to local government more widely and we’re conscious that having the time to work on projects like the Atlas is a privilege we can’t take for granted.

The Current Collaborative Context

Within the team here there’s a genuine desire for our work to benefit as many people as possible. This raises some interesting questions for us.  We believe these questions need to be answered in what is a strengthening ‘collaborative context’ here in London – under the broader auspices of the developing Smart London Plan both the London Office of Data Analytics and London Office of Technology and Innovation are emerging collaborative frameworks designed to create the space in which all of resources, expertise, data and digital know-how can be shared so that innovation (linked to valuable outcomes for strategic, and therefore shared, issues) takes hold.

In this respect, the London Schools Atlas is a great start.

Beyond London?

Currently, there are few precedents for extending the scope of these sorts of data-driven products beyond London.  That said, there is a clear ambition from the MHCLG, the GDS and leading lights in city and regional government to capitalise on the digital collaboration premium.  A blossoming network of Offices of Data Analytics is proof of the growing sense that the ever-improving availability of data and a growing capacity to use it is making it easier – and more acceptable – to transplant digital tools developed in one place for use in another.

So, what about the narrower proposition of opening up the Atlas to authorities beyond London?  After all, this is an area where there is a high prevalence of data uniformity (thanks to the DfE) and a problem that manifests itself – with some regional variation, of course – in broadly the same way across the country.  Thanks to the good practice in processing the data and the scalable nature of the platform we’ve built, in a purely technical sense we can very readily extend the coverage of the Atlas to include all of England.  Indeed, we have already done so.

Your Views on how to really improve in the Open

The questions that now arise are: should we? And if so, how do we manage that?

We want to share the benefits of the work done to date whilst not overstepping our mark.  For the existing Atlas we have a pretty good handle on who our key stakeholders are and how to work with them. Extending the scope of the Atlas would be to greatly expand the number of parties with an interest in our work and, quite frankly, we’re not set up to undertake engagement on the scale that central government departments do.

In the coming weeks we’ll be actively seeking out the views and advice of colleagues representing interests beyond London.  We want to know what value you see in having access to the same information already available to London residents and planners, and what sort of enhancements you think could be delivered, if a country-wide initiative were to be developed.

In the London Schools Atlas we’ve created a great tool and asset.  Now we want to make sure its potential is maximised and realised in the broadest possible sense.  In the spirit of openness, if you are a public service data leader who wants a sneak peek at the Schools Atlas for your area ahead of the forthcoming formal consultation, please do get in touch.