A big future for local information systems?

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I’ve blogged earlier today that effective research and information is needed in order to meet the tough spending challenges – leaders and decision-makers, commissioners and providers more than ever need the right intelligence to prioritise and reshape services, identify over and under-performance, and highlight where early preventative investment can save significant resources in the longer-term.

It is also worth highlighting the increasingly important role that local information systems (LIS) can play – and the drivers behind this.

Using open data to support local services and decision-making

The government commitment to transparency and open data is clear. But it’s also pretty clear that the Coalition government does not see its role as developing tools and websites to visualise and disseminate this data (even if the funds were there to do so).

This is likely a good thing. Presenting information well is all about tailoring it to your audience, and central government generally has lots of different audiences with different needs (I’m reminded of John Harvey-Jones’ famous question to the Royal Navy captain – “who is your customer?”. If you know a link to this, do let me know!).

But supporting local services and decision-making requires more than just open data – there also need to be open tools that make use of that data. And the spending review could bring some high profile casualties among the open tools currently provided by government. There are many valuable and useful websites run centrally that provide important resources for local research and performance teams, as well as local communities.  Although there are no immediate signs of Neighbourhood Statistics shutting-up shop, ONS has been hit by a near 10% per year budget cut and is shortly launching a user consultation on future priorities for support. Less high profile, Communities and Local Government services such as the Places Analysis Tool are already disappearing.

Local information systems and open data applications

If national government does draw back from presenting the available information in easy-to-use ways, there will be a correspondingly greater need for good tools that present this information for local areas. Effective service delivery and decision-making by local authorities and communities will still need robust evidence.

And so to local information systems (and other open data applications)…. The value of local information systems is in part providing the first point of call for local information and knowledge, saving significant time and cash for users in finding information. This role will only grow in importance if other tools that display national data disappear – users will need high level summaries of the area for strategic decision-making (“how do we compare against other areas? Where are we performing better/ worse than others?” etc), but will also want the nitty-gritty detail to inform service delivery ( “how many people in this area likely need this service? Where are the groups that early intervention is useful for?” etc).

There are some good local information systems out there, but existing software developers may need to up their game or change their business model. There are going to be a lot of free, or low-cost, tools appearing on the back of the open data movement. At first these will likely be smaller tools with not much development behind them. But open source software demonstrates that, over time, sophisticated and reliable “free” systems can be developed that successfully compete with commercial software. And also, it may be that lots of small niche “free” tools (such as OpenlyLocal drawing together a range of open data sources) emerge that in combination provide the detail needed.

For me, this points to some big unanswered questions: will “free” tools emerge naturally that are good enough to compete with current commercial systems (ie, the Linux story)? Is there a role for local government (and support organisations such as LGA and LGID) to further develop the market? How will commercial vendors up their game (or change business model) to meet the challenge?

Whatever the answers, local information systems have a big future – the right tools are definitely needed to provide the right supporting information (at the right time) for local authorities and communities.

Tom Smith, OCSI.

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