How open data challenge funds can help level up the UK

Tris Dyson, Managing Director of Nesta Challenges, examines how local government could work with other groups and organisations to utilise resources like open data and solve some of the challenges set out in the Levelling Up white paper

Last week the government unveiled its long-awaited plan to level up the UK and spread opportunities more equally across the nation. The plan set out a range of missions, including levelling up education and skills so that 200,000 more people complete high-quality training every year; narrowing the gap in life expectancy between areas; and improving transport by bringing standards closer to those seen in London.

This ambitious agenda is to be commended in its scope, but the real challenge is how to turn a national vision into transformative change at the local level. To truly mobilise local leadership and industry innovation, we need to support local leaders to undertake complex, mission-driven, multi-sector collaboration.

Open data challenge funds
There is a pivotal opportunity to support what is potentially the largest devolution of power from Whitehall ever seen. While the Government has a laudable aim of supporting local and Mayoral Combined Authorities with better access to data and spatial analysis, there is an opportunity to take this a step further, by enabling local authorities to leverage open data and partner with businesses and other stakeholders to drive local innovation and transformative change.

For more than 10 years Nesta Challenges has been working to find solutions to some of society’s biggest problems. We’ve done this by running open innovation competitions that bring together the UK’s best innovators with problem-holders to create solutions to thorny problems. Open innovation competitions, or challenge prizes, foster cross-sector collaboration, provide an agile route to problem-solving, generate investment from the private sector and support the commercialisation and scaling of innovation.

For example, in 2018 we ran the £5 million Open Up Challenge to use open banking data to transform the way small businesses use financial services in the UK. We followed this up with the 2020 edition, a £1.5 million challenge to help more people use their own financial data to allow them to get more from their money.

We’ve also worked with cities in the UK and abroad to run challenge funds to create breakthrough solutions to complex problems, ranging from building more affordable, net-zero homes in Bristol and tackling freight congestion in Bogotá, to reducing air pollution and providing better social support services to disadvantaged populations in London. Cities are hungry for more nimble, creative ways to solve local problems.

Levelling up bus ridership
The same approach could help advance the government’s mission to give more people access to quality, reliable transport services. While nearly six out of every 10 public transport journeys in Britain are on buses, people’s overall experience is of unreliable, slow and expensive journeys.

Open data challenge funds, designed with government, local authorities, and transport services providers, would bring tech innovators and the transport industry together to leverage open data and create more demand-responsive services, provide better information to customers, lead to better planning and decision-making, and better integrate services to meet more people in more places.

Powering adult learning
Like transport, skills is an area in which open data could prove transformative for the 25 per cent of the UK’s working age population with low literacy and numeracy skills. The UK could improve its productivity by at least five per cent if it reduced its level of skills mismatch, yet too many adult learners are discouraged from pursuing further education because of the time, cost or energy required - or fear of being perceived as a failure for needing to take up this education.

To combat this, we need new digital tools that meet the unique and varied needs of learners around the UK. A challenge prize here would help take the edtech explosion we’ve seen in recent years to the people who stand to benefit the most, by bringing together local authorities with employability experts and the tech sector, to find solutions to improving literacy, numeracy and digital skills that are tailored to local employability needs. Innovation such as AI-powered courses which adapt the difficulty of content to the learner’s needs, gamified quizzes and apps which allow for bite-sized learning, as well as careers advice which shows a clear pathway from learning to local employment opportunities, are all potential solutions to the skills gap in the UK.

Improving health outcomes
Similarly, challenge prizes could address the levelling up goals to reduce regional health inequalities and promote access to available health facilities locally, through the incentivisation of AI-enabled clinical decision tools and digital/telemedicine healthcare systems. Use of locally collected data on health inequalities and population level health data could be used to build responsive machine-learning, creating databases to enable this innovation. Working with local authorities, innovators in these challenges could trial new technologies and gather data on impact and long-term implementation.

Building capacity of local authorities to deliver
As more areas of the UK take on greater responsibility, we should empower mayors and other leaders to take creative new approaches to identifying and tackling local problems. Innovation challenge funds will help them harness innovation potential around a particular mission; invite businesses and other enabling partners to develop, test and scale solutions; and foster systemic change by engaging a broad spectrum of stakeholders - including citizens, businesses, regulators, and government - to unlock the full potential of communities across the UK.

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