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Three picks from the Open Data sweet-shop Part 1

September 1st, 2011

The Head of IT at Brighton & Hove Council, Paul Colbran, recently weighed-in with a big offer to the Open Data Brighton & Hove group – “tell us what data you need, and we’ll open it up”. Having worked with government data one way or another for about 20 years, that sounds like opening up the sweet shop and inviting us to help ourselves. In other words, count me in.

I’ve tried hard and managed to restrict myself to only 3 picks from the sweet counter. I’ve also avoided the easy answer “open up everything and let us decide”, and gone for things that (I hope) are reasonably plausible. And finally, I’ve gone for things that I think will make a difference. Data that we can use across the city to change things, not just sit in a data store gathering digital dust. And I hope that some of these could be useful starters-for-10 for the October CityForum meeting in Brighton.

In this first of a 2-part blog, I’m looking at data for school admissions to help parents make choices.  A follow-up part will look at information on value-for-money, and understanding detailed patterns of deprivation across the city.

Open Data Pick 1. School choices – helping parents

It’s exam results season again, with the usual excitement and scramble for university places. As a parent of a 3 year-old, that all seems a long way off. By contrast, the application for school places is frighteningly real. From today (1st September) onwards, the parents of 6,000 children across the city will be wading through documents galore as they try to work out what schools they have any chance of getting into, and how those schools compare on Ofsted inspections and exam results.

So why do I think open data could help? Because currently the system is a maze. Without going into the gory details, getting hold of the available information involves phone-calls with the (very helpful) council school admissions team, reading many PDF documents, copying and pasting between Excel spreadsheets, following-up on rumours from friends that “such-and-such information” might be available, estimating probabilities over time, and numerous Google searches.

For a researcher this is bread & butter stuff (although I still have an uneasy feeling I’ve missed something critical) but not all parents will be so used to working with spreadsheets. As one possible future scenario is that open data could actually increase exclusion for those groups with less time or knowhow to find out what they need (Michael Gurstein has a couple of good posts on the ‘data divide’ here and here), it’s important we make sure that published data can easily be digested by all groups.

The information needed by parents includes the following list, which is all currently available to parents but from multiple sources.

  1. Home-school distance for all schools: For admission to primary schools, the walking distance (not straightline distance) from your home to each school is the critical piece of data in Brighton & Hove. Currently you either ring up the Council school admissions, or fill in this web-form. As the admissions team presumably has a bit of GIS kit that gives them the answers (rather than working it all out from maps and bits of string), this would need to be opened up via some kind of API, or perhaps pre-calculated for all postcodes and schools in Brighton. [Note, the School Map website has location of all schools across England, with estimated straight-line distance from your postcode -  but Brighton uses walking distance not straight-line.]
  2. School application information, including location, application forms, open day dates (or visitor details) etc. This is currently held on school websites and PDF documents.
  3. Previous year applications and acceptances data, including number of places; number of applications (and whether the school was 1st, 2nd or 3rd choice); number of places granted; number of applications by status (basically whether they got a place through having brother/ sister at the school, religious status in case of the religious schools,  being close to the school, or other reason).  Currently this is spread across PDF documents, with data for religious schools confusingly in a different location.
  4. Home-school distance for previous successful applicants: This is the key bit that tells you whether your child would likely get in to a particular school (assuming they don’t have siblings at the school or other special status). Having this data available by year would allow the website to identify whether an application from your address would have likely got in on each of the previous years.
  5. School exam results over time: Including any value-added (progress) scores, and breakdowns by free-school meals or other standard indicators. (currently available on the Department for Education website as a postcode-based search).
  6. Ofsted school inspections reports: Currently available on the Ofsted website from a postcode-based search for Ofsted reports – http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/inspection-reports/find-inspection-report.

So what could make this information easier to navigate? Basically I want a single place to go to get all this information, where the information is well explained and easy-to-use. And critically I want to be able to input my address (or postcode) and have the website show me the appropriate schools – and whether or not I would have been successful in previous years.

If each of these datasets were published and referenced by school code, they could be linked-up relatively straightforwardly, put on a nice interactive map front-end, and updated annually from easily published info.

There are commercial organisations out there that aim to do this sort of thing for local authorities, but they’re fairly expensive and have fairly low take-up (I’ve only come across a handful of LAs using these). There are also some free services to parents such as the Hertfordshire School Guru. I’d take a punt that something similar in Brighton could work very well.

Tom Smith, OCSI.