ODI Leeds

The first Transport & Economy Data Summit in Leeds

The Transport and Economy Data Summit started as an idea back in August. It hadn't yet formed into a conference-style event but it was clear what it would be about. Not a week has gone by over the summer where transport spending hasn't been called into question, especially after a timetable change brought chaos to thousands of commuters. When claims that spending for transport in the North is in line with other regions are countered with arguments that it isn't, it can leave a lot of people (namely the public) confused and frustrated. Is everyone looking at the same data? And are they looking at it and using it the same way? Thus the idea for the Transport and Economy Data Summit was born.

Fast-forward to 25 October. The attendees have all grabbed their tea or coffee and settled into their seats in our innovation space. Neil McClure, the Head of Transport Innovation for ODI Leeds and the lead for Open Transport North, kicked everything off with an introduction to the day - who we were, what Open Transport North was, and what we hoped to achieve by the end of the day. The sentiment that would underpin the day was 'Not all transport innovation is about shiny new things.'

You can watch the whole morning talks in the YouTube video below, or you can read on for a summarised version.

The speaker agenda was impressive, with representatives from think tanks, governmental departments, independent bodies, consulting agencies, and more. Hearing from different perspectives was crucial for this Summit to be productive - there'd be no benefit to the same opinions being echoed around the room without intelligent debate and challenge. There was an encouraging mood overall - Tom Forth (who is Head of Data here at ODI Leeds) spoke about the need for less to-and-fro between opposing sides and the need for more collaboration instead. We all want to learn more and understand the methods and processes behind the data analysis that then fuels headlines or 'official responses.'

As if by magic, Luke Raikes from IPPR North then shared their methods for scrutinising government figures. From their analysis, they found that it is the 'future spending' that ends up in the headlines with historical spending rarely challenged. Which is interesting because it reveals the same London bias that people are experiencing right now. It also shows that transport spending has increased faster for London than for anywhere else. But before we get stuck in a bad feedback loop where we just repeat the grievances over and over again, did Luke have any theories about why official figures varied so wildly with the data? Yes. The government excludes a significant amount of spending (which happens to be in London). They only use future spending figures up to the year 2020/2021 which then discounts the funding for large infrastructure projects. And they also exclude all TfL spending. Luke ended his talk with 3 clear recommendations to improve things:

  • hold the government to account about where they spend their money and how they plan to spend it
  • demand better data and transparent, fair methodologies for analysis
  • support Transport for the North's activities and plans, giving them more power and funding

Fanny Goldschmidt from Open Data Soft (one of the newest sponsors at ODI Leeds) presented examples from Europe of open data being used to add value and deliver improvements to various aspects of everyday experience, from the 'smart walking stick' for the blind to live departure and bus tracking in transport systems. She also demonstrated that some value is not immediately seen, such as the use of open data that encouraged private companies to invest in under-served areas of cities. In a moment of perfect scheduling, Michael O'Toole from Deloitte was next to further advocate for open data. Michael provided a summary of the latest version of the annual TfL and Deloitte report estimating the total economic value of open data in London. His talk focused on the challenges and approach to building a case for Transport for London to release more data openly. The economic approach involved setting a value on people's time and that by releasing open data for others to innovate with, more economic value could be achieved if people could save time on their journeys. There were also non-economic selling points, such as improving air quality through more uptake of public transport, etc. A vital question from the audience - could the same be done in the North? Optimistically, yes. But it would need more open data and collaboration.

Stepping up next was David Levene from Transport for the North to talk about the new sub-regional transport body and what they had planned for the future. He began with the vision that Transport for the North use as their guiding principle - 'A thriving North of England where world class transport supports sustainable economic growth and opportunities for all.' A Northern Powerhouse Independent Economic Review conducted a few years ago sought to answer the question of 'what would the North look like if it could close that historical productivity gap?,' producing figures such as 100b increase in GVA and up to 850,000 additional jobs. So Transport for the North looked at how the transport network would play its role in this monumental shift of productivity - what would be required to make this future a reality? They produced a framework that encompassed Northern Powerhouse Rail, long-term rail strategy, integrated and smart travel, and the major road network as the key areas for investment and infrastructure projects. David shared so much that we couldn't possibly include it all in this summary but he was very keen to emphasise the future role that open data can play.

Which brings us nicely to Andrew McPhilips from the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, who had a lot to say about the timetable chaos earlier this year and the impact that had on the North (good and bad). We don't need to talk about how it happened as that has been covered ad nauseum in the media. Instead, Andrew highlighted the way in which many businesses, organisations, and news outlets came together to create #OneNorth - a combined online and offline day of pressure on the government. Newspapers and online newsrooms all ran the same story for the day, plus used social media to get #OneNorth trending. It brought related issues - like Yorkshire devolution and more powers/funding for Transport for the North - to the forefront as well. What Andrew would like to see next is more collaboration and more open data so that real-time services and tools could be made to help commuters.

The penultimate talk of the morning was delivered by Nicola Headlam of the Cities and Local Growth Unit. She is officially head of the Northern Powerhouse, a position she has only been in for 5 weeks. But she is not daunted - she has always been interested in how places change, whether from new policy and strategy or from other factors, or a combination of the two. And she is a big advocate for open data. To quote her - "Open data leads to open policy leads to better policy leads to better outcomes." We couldn't agree more! Nicola firmly believes that an open approach is the best way forward, and that we should create an open platform for what the North could be, looking for the hotspots of energy and effort along the way.

James Gleave of Transport Futures was the final speaker of the morning but was hampered slightly by a technical glitch, meaning that he instead kicked off the afternoon after everyone had enjoyed lunch. His focus was looking at the small things in relation to transport spending and funding. It can be all too easy to look at the large projects and big investments whilst missing the local importance of smaller spending, such as road maintenance. This is where local government data is useful, and many councils across England are doing well with publishing more open data. His idea was to link the local spending to economic performance and then to transport strategy.

The afternoon session took a slightly different approach. We sought to start the discussion around three key questions:

  1. What relevant open data is currently available?
  2. What are the key questions we are trying to answer?
  3. What are the current data gaps?

We split into three equal groups to move around and contribute to each of the three parts of the discussion, with one member of the Open Transport North team facilitating the discussion at each 'station'.

Discussion 1:

Hosted by Giles Dring

Looking at the transport system as it exists now, there is a large spectrum of data that is applicable when analysing the performance of transport and economy. The general consensus was that there is some good quality and relevant data out there but it all suffers from a lack of good cataloging. Time is currently wasted trying to find the data and bring it all together.

Discussion 2:

Hosted by Tom Forth

How do we add social value to the argument for investment?

What is the impact on communities of better transport? And how do we measure that?

How do we connect better with people and communities?

What is the user experience of transport? Could we have some kind of survey app to learn more about what everyday users think of their transport choices?

How does the current system work?

Who should be deciding on investment? Per region, per city?

What do people and communities want?

Discussion 3:

Hosted by Paul Connell & Neil McClure

Perhaps unsurprisingly, data gaps are prolific. From highly specific requests about things like cycling incidents and rail passenger numbers to more fuzzy concepts like social value and quality of life. These of course lead onto very valid questions about what how to define those fuzzy concepts, which then in turn identified more gaps in data. Some gaps aren't even 'real' gaps because the data actually exists but can't be accessed openly.

Next Steps / Actions

The Transport and Economy Data Summit was just the start, an energetic introduction to the kind of events and important discussions that can be created via Open Transport North. The diversity of the attendees and speakers is testament to the appetite for truly engaging debate around transport and data, particularly for the North. There was a lot of really good conversations and potentially fruitful connections made so it's important that the momentum doesn't stop there.

Be advocates for open data in your organisations and spread the word about what we are trying to do. The more people we get involved, the greater the weight we can put behind the fundamental idea at the core of Open Transport North - using open data and innovation to unlock potential in the transport system across the North of England for the benefit of everyone.

There will be further opportunities to get involved with Open Transport North, as well as future events that will continue to explore the possibilities in transport innovation. To hear about these first, sign up for the Open Transport North mailing list, or get in touch with Neil McClure to discuss any potential projects.