Opening new Sure Start centres must coincide with an open data plan

Earlier in the year Hoop was approached by MIT to take part in their annual competition SOLVE. The theme was early child development, and they were interested to learn more about the problem Hoop addressed, and how we’re solving it.

You can read our full entry here, however there is shorter version…

Across the UK there are fantastic programmes of activities run by small businesses, charities and local government that support early years development. The problem? Finding them is far too difficult.

Hoop aggregates all of this messy data, making it free (and easy) for any family with a smartphone to access it.

This brings me to the general election.

The Labour party have an admirable manifesto line to open/re-open 1,000 children’s centres across the UK. Admirable because a number of reports have shown the health and education benefits the centres brought to children and their families, particularly in the most disadvantaged parts of the country.

It would seem that awareness of local Sure Start Centre’s was never a key concern. A report by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (now Department of Education) in 2009 said that:

Overall awareness of Sure Start Children’s Centres was high

Citing that word of mouth (33%), health visiting (26%) and just living in close proximity to a centre (20%) had been enough to get the word out. This was despite the fact that one in five people still didn’t know where their local centre was.

The world is very different to how it was when the Sure Start programme launched in 1998 however. We’ve seen multiple technological revolutions that have made mobile broadband, and mobile computing verging on universal. People’s models of discovering real world information has altered radically, and so if awareness levels of these new centres is going to compete with (ideally improve upon) past performance, something will have to change.

With all this in mind, Labour’s policy must include a pledge to open up the data created by Sure Start centres. And by that I don’t just mean the name and location of each new centre; I mean the services they provide, event level data for each programme (think category, target age, cost, etc), and the geography they cover, as many activities are limited to specific postcodes. Today’s customers expect to have quick access to this sort of information. In 2020, relying on word of mouth or professional outreach won’t be enough.

Nor can national government rely on this issue being tackled effectively on local level. Local Authorities manage the centres, indeed, part of the programmes success was the effort to personalise each centre by giving control over to the local authority and the surrounding community. Norman Glass, one of the architects of Sure Start wrote in 2005:

They were to be locally administered by partnerships between the statutory agencies (local authorities and primary care trusts) and the voluntary and private sectors.

However, data does not obey arbitrary regional boundaries. If I live on the border between Islington and Hackney, I shouldn’t have to complete two different searches, and I definitely shouldn’t be impacted by variations in local government funding, just as the Family Information Service so often is. Data doesn’t want to be siloed this way, and so it needs national co-ordination.

The issue of open data is not one that is unique to Sure Start. Any new government programme must ask how it can make the data it creates available to everyone. However, in the case of Sure Start specifically, I feel that the rather than open data being a “nice to have” it is actually central to its potential success.

Daniel Bower

Blogging about platform regulation: algorithms, interoperability, kill zones as well as other bits and bobs. Read about my research, or read more about me.