How open data is helping Falkirk halt summer ‘holiday hunger’

Scotland’s Falkirk Council is using open geospatial data to help families find school lunch clubs and other resources. Gill Hitchcock reports

The Kelpies sculptures stand next to the Falkirk Wheel   Credit: Mat Fascione/CC BY-SA 2.0   Image has been cropped

This summer, Falkirk Council is using open data and an open-source mapping tool to tackle ‘holiday hunger’. The tool, Our Falkirk, is helping people to identify resources where children who receive free school meals during term time can get food during their school holidays.

One of these is a holiday lunch club at Falkirk’s Madison Community Church. The map shows the facility is open on Wednesdays in July and August and offers activities for children too, such as cake baking and necklace making.

But this is one of many resources on the map. It indicates other lunch clubs, food banks and advice centres across an area where nearly 7,000 households are experiencing in-work poverty and one in five children lives in poverty.

“I suppose we have the perfect storm in our division in that we have responsibility for the technology, as well as the Fairer Falkirk anti-poverty strategy,” says Fiona Campbell, head of policy, technology and improvement at Falkirk Council. “We have to ensure that our services are as inclusive as possible.”

“There is no referral pathway or complicated route for vulnerable people to navigate. All the information is there, so people can choose where and when they want to access help.”
Fiona Campbell

Our Falkirk was developed by the council and its technology partner, thinkWhere. Based on the free-to-use platform, OpenStreetMap, it uses open geospatial datasets to signpost local people and frontline council staff to essential services.

“We have been doing a lot of work to refresh our anti-poverty strategy,” says the council’s Fairer Falkirk manager Sally Buchanan. “In a lot of the discussions, we find that people know of new and various places which provide support. Our Falkirk was an opportunity to use technology to improve the sharing of information and make it accessible to people, not just members of the public, but our frontline staff too.”

Campbell believes the map is a guide to self-help: “There is no referral pathway or complicated route for vulnerable people to navigate. All the information is there, so people can choose where and when they want to access help. And it works very well on a mobile phone, which it ideal for the members of the public we are trying to target with this.”

Funding to get Our Falkirk off the ground was provided by the Open Data Institute (ODI). Co-founded by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Sir Nigel Shadbolt, the institute aims to show how open data can bring about positive change. 

In December 2018 it supported open geospatial data projects at Falkirk and three other local authorities. It wanted a better understanding of how to collect, publish and use open geospatial data in local government. But it was especially interested in projects that drew on data from across the UK’s geospatial data infrastructure, including tOrdnance Survey and OpenStreetMap.

“I think our project stood out because it uses technology to address the specific need of getting information out to people that can make a real difference to their lives,” says Buchanan.

After the ODI funding of some £25,000 was confirmed last December, Our Falkirk kicked off with a workshop where Buchanan, her team and thinkWhere talked through the themes and types of information they wanted to make available. 

Just a few weeks later, a prototype map was presented to organisations which work with Falkirk council to mitigate poverty. The NHS and charities were among them. Members of the public, including unemployed people at ‘work clubs’, were invited to feedback about how easy to use and informative it was.

Buchanan found there were a number of concerns. For instance, some people wanted to know how much information should be available on the map, others were worried about how the map would be maintained and updated. 

“There is always a slight fear of putting information online. Does it mean you are going to be swamped with service requests?” she says.

“I think we reassured people that within my team we have got control of the information that is up on there and that it would be worth giving it a go.”

Future plans
Our Falkirk went live in early May. To get the message out, the council promoted it to staff via an intranet and newsletter and to the public using social media. It accelerated the publicity drive this summer to make sure people are aware of lunch clubs.

Cameron is keen to point out that the map does not “sit in glorious isolation”, but with a number of other tools. One example is the council’s benefits calculator so that people can check their entitlement to benefits and services. 

“Our elected members get a lot of people turning up at their surgeries needing advice and support, so they use these tools as well,” she says.

Falkirk wants to develop its map. It has had discussions with a range of services who are interested in publishing information on Our Falkirk, and it is currently working on providing sanitary products at a range of locations and applying that to the map. 

A key aspect of the ODI funding was that the innovation could be used by other councils. Cameron says the map provides a solution to the thorny problem of getting information out to staff and the public. 

“I can’t see any downside to this. And it’s much more dynamic than looking at lists either online or in a paper directory.”

Sam Trendall

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