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Blog - Using digital technology to help Neighbourhood Planning groups form a credible evidence base

This blog post is the first in a series of guest entries written by the winners of the Catapult’s Future of Planning Open Call. Between February and April 2017, nine teams are developing new technologies and prototypes to create a more data-driven and digitally enabled planning system. This week, we feature a blog post from David King of the Housing Association’s Chartible Trust (HACT) and Oxford Consultants for Social Inclusion (OCSI). HACT/OCSI are developing a ‘Neighbourhood Insight’ web-tool that will combine and map open-data from government and other sources to local neighbourhood planning boundaries.

Follow @HACThousing and @ocsi_uk to learn more about their project.

HACT (the Housing Association’s Charitable Trust) is a social enterprise that builds digital and research skills in the social housing sector. In partnership with OCSI (Oxford Consultants for Social Inclusion), the social research consultancy behind the Indices of Deprivation, we’ve been getting data into the hands of community groups and support staff through our web-tool Community Insight. We’re now working on a web-tool that helps neighbourhood planners access the data they need to build an evidence base for their plan-making.

More than ever, “data” and “evidence” are buzzwords that fill conferences, blogs, and articles. It’s worth revisiting why access to data is important to something like Neighbourhood Planning. Data is not an end in itself. It needs to be relevant to decision making, robust, and up-to-date – something that is surprisingly difficult to achieve in planning at the moment.

When citizens engaged in their surrounding built environment come together, they can form a Neighbourhood Forum. As they discuss what they like and dislike about their area and note the common themes, they are in effect, creating data. This data is prized as a result of the Localism Act 2011, which allows existing town and parish councils, as well as Neighbourhood Forums, to play a role in the planning system. The appeal of this change to the planning system is obvious. Why shouldn’t local people be able to shape the environment around them?

To focus in on the most pressing issues an area faces and to strengthen the argument for a plan, ‘objective’ evidence needs to be generated. This can be tricky for a small group, who have other big engagement tasks, like getting the vote out for a referendum. Thanks to the hard work of open-data advocates, the UK is rich in available secondary data, much of it released to small areas called Output Areas.

Up to now, access to these small area statistics has not been as easy as you’d might expect. With our tool, we’re going to make it as easy as possible. Below is a shot from our testing site which shows a neighbourhood area (thank you to http://www.neighbourhoodplanners.london/map for their brilliant map) with the small area statistics visualised as polygons, assigned different colours based on a housing affordability indicator created as part of the 2015 review of the Indices of Deprivation. We have 700+ more indicators for planners to choose from, something we’re keen to explore as part of the development.


What’s more, we will aggregate open-data to these boundaries, and then explore new ways of thinking about evidence. For instance, which new approaches to managing the built environment might suit my area, based on the characteristics revealed through open-data?

If you’re already involved in neighbourhood planning or just interested in how to influence the built environment, we’d love to hear from you. You can sign up to our design group here.

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