A panoramic photograph of Malham Cove in North Yorkshire.

A first look at the Calderdale digital strategy

I always like visiting Halifax. I came as a child to visit the Eureka museum. I’ve since been to watch Rugby League, to visit the fantastic Piece Hall, and to stop off for Pie & Peas at the town's amazing market while cycling from Leeds to Manchester.

In December 2016 I had another chance to visit, to discuss the council’s digital strategy at Halifax town hall.

I’ve been looking at Calderdale’s data a lot recently — they are supporters of ODILeeds and release many unique datasets that we have added to our ward maps. My input on the day focused on data and I took away five big things from our discussions.

1. Digital exclusion is mostly about price, not bandwidth

We know that Calderdale’s rural areas are both the wealthiest and those with the slowest broadband. Although this isn’t surprising in the UK it is useful to have it confirmed.

This matters because Calderdale council are trying to deliver more services — and information that prevents a service being required — online. They’ve been monitoring who uses their online services and they’ve been talking with people. What they’ve found is important.

Slow broadband is almost never a reason why people don’t use the council’s online services. Most people own a device that can access the internet. What stops many people from accessing services online is the high cost of internet access.

So, in trying to tackle digital exclusion, and thus deliver services more efficiently, it might be right for Calderdale to focus less on improving rural broadband speeds or subsidising devices, and more on providing free basic WiFi in urban areas.

It was great to hear that there are efforts to achieve this via street-lighting. There will be a battle with incumbents — some of whom were at our session — and many similar efforts have failed as a result. But there are also examples of success and they are worth emulating.

2. Calderdale is a skilled and innovative place

I already knew that Calderdale was a creative and innovative place — just look at the list of speakers and projects at Wuthering Bytes technology festival in Hebden Bridge every year. It is positioned between North England’s two most important cities, Leeds and Manchester, and offers fantastic quality of life and beautiful countryside to many who chose to work in those cities. I was really happy that the council seem to celebrate that rather than feel threatened by that.

Despite Halifax Bank of Scotland’s difficulties, financial services remain an important and lucrative business. Experienced and skilled staff who have left the industry have often started and joined innovative new companies. The borough has an unexpectedly high level of highly-skilled residents given that it has no university.

The council has led on digital, it had the first 24/7 online chat helpdesk for example. Some places in the UK lack the local skills and ambition to lead on digital. Calderdale is not one of them.

3. Culture is a key opportunity

The Tour de Yorkshire, the reopening of Halifax Piece Hall, and Hebden Bridge being named high street of the year are big opportunities for Calderdale.

At our meeting there was a clear desire to measure engagement with cultural events like these. Knowing who attends which events would let the council give extra support to those activities that widen participation. There is a clear role for open data powered tools in doing this. We have already done a lot of it with our OpenAudience tool that we will be showing to Calderdale soon.

The council are keen that any measures to tackle digital exclusion should also increase opportunities that people have to engage in social and cultural activities. This seems like a good idea to me.

But how could technology also help bring tourists to the area? And how could it help them to buy from the piece hall, stay for longer, and partake in more of the cultural offerings? These are more difficult questions. They are things that the new Business Improvement District should be thinking about. I both hope and expect that they already are.

4. An example journey could tie together much of our thinking

Open data informs and enables collaborations that get things done. It can be tempting to focus on small self-contained examples to show visible impacts of open data, but that risks missing bigger overall gains. So I wanted to find a bigger story and think about how open data might help in Calderdale. I think I found one.

Some areas of the borough are poor with high rates of progression. New people come to Halifax, succeed, and move to other places. But some areas of the borough are poor with low rates of progression. Families have lived there for a long time and have struggled to succeed.

This requires a different approach. Data would help us understand what type of area we’re looking at and pick better approaches more quickly.

Education remains a challenge for some areas. Everyone agreed that in addition to enabling the creation of new apprenticeships and jobs in Calderdale the council has a role in helping people get them.

Planning matters here. Calderdale is mindful of where jobs will most probably be created and in what fields. It knows that it could do better at connecting people with those jobs.

People are working on each of these areas, but they are too often not working together. This is not, indeed it almost never is, for lack of trying. I think that open data can help, by removing the need for meetings and formal data sharing to collaborate.

Tackling poverty in childhood, ensuring that people get a great education, assigning land for jobs and apprenticeships, and planning transport to get people to those jobs and apprenticeships are all things that can be improved by understanding how each part works together. I will be looking at how this year.

5. Social care is a key area for innovation

Social care is what keeps councillors and their officers up at night. It is an ever-growing challenge and an area where technology has been too slow at improving efficiency.

It is also something that I don’t know much about and an area where I am convinced that focus and expertise matters. It is not my area of expertise.

But that does not mean I don’t have a suggestion. As part of ODILeeds’ work with IoTUK|Boost we were fortunate to stumble across a company called Konnektis. We’re really happy that they used the events and a collaboration with the digital health enterprise zone in Bradford to establish themselves in Bradford.

Their product is great and their people know much more than me about how digital could improve efficiency in care. They are very friendly too. Give them a call.

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