Say it with flowers – bringing open data to a new audience (hopefully)

When we set the Innovation and Intelligence Lab up, we were very keen that we would be totally open about what we’re doing. Blogging as we go along, getting stuff out early on in the development process, and capturing all the decisions we were making so that we, and others, can learn from what goes well, and what doesn’t.

The problem (for me) with this style of running commentary, is that there’s no ‘ta-daaa moment’. Because the stuff we’re doing is being constantly exposed as it develops, it feels like there’s no room, or need, for a launch.

Sometimes, however, we do stuff that’s aimed at a totally different audience, and I think that this is one of those projects.

A couple of weeks ago, my twitter timeline was full of photos from Gorgeous Gorse Hill, a group in the North of Trafford who have taken it upon themselves to improve their neighbourhood. On this occasion, they were tweeting photos of BT boxes in the area, boxes that had been brightly painted with a variety of designs.

Something is happening in Gorse Hill.  Data shows that there are a much higher proportion of 20 – 40 year olds here than anywhere else in Trafford. MediaCityUK is close by, and a local Councillor, Mike Cordingley mentions a tangible buzz.

Now one of the intended aims of the Innovation and Intelligence Lab is to increase awareness and understanding of data. There is a huge amount of data available to make use of, and we know that there are a number of people engaged with our Local Information System, InfoTrafford, (~600 people per month), or who follow us on twitter (~1,000 people), but the stuff that we do is likely to never get near a significant proportion of the population. A challenge that we face is how to make sure those people who are not at the digital party are as informed as those who are.

So, back to me, scrolling through pictures of painted street furniture on a saturday night. I was struck by an idea. Here was a group of residents who were looking to improve their local neighbourhood through planting, and tidying, and art. They had the wider community mobilised to water baskets, and pick up litter. What if we combined this guerilla horticulturism with data. I could reach a TOTALLY new audience, by visualising data with flowers. I tweeted gorgeous Gorse Hill with my idea – could we combine planting with data?

Naturally, they wanted more info, so I quickly came up with a couple of things that we could do. We could cut a hedge in such a way that it looked like a slopegraph showing turnout in the local elections for the last ten years. We could plant bedding plants in a pie chart arrangement, showing the ethnic breakdown of residents. Something to do with children achieving the recommended level in SATs.

I should note at this point that I do not understand plants, so wasn’t sure of what was possible. But GGH liked the idea. They invited me to a project meeting, where i could pitch the idea to the rest of the group. So I went down on a boiling thursday night, with an unprepared 10 minute pitch. I could tell from their faces when i first started to talk about open data, and streetlights, and gamification of the urban environment, that i needed to rein it in. So I spoke about some basic data that we hold, and how we could visualise it, and then it happened. The group started to throw in suggestions – a census of local wildlife, visualising use of carbon in the neighbourhood, and having a trail of temporary installations, where the community could discover the data. Data that tells the story of Gorse Hill. This was the absolute best possible outcome I could have hoped for. They were up for it, and the indications were that it will have a positive impact on the community.

That was last week (17th July), so the next steps for me are to meet with the project lead, and plant expert, to look at the data available, and how we might represent it using bedding plants, or shrubs, or trees, or whatever. Each visualisation will be accompanied by  a carefully-worded plaque (laminated cardboard, not like bronze or anything) describing the data, and explaining where to get more information.

Of everything that I’ve done – this is one of the most exciting for me, because it really has the potential to bring open data to a whole new audience. And if we can make it work in Gorse Hill (population 12,042), then maybe we can take it across Trafford (population 228,000). And then…who knows?

I’m looking forward to providing further updates as things happen with this project – especially photos and feedback from the community.

As always – if anyone out there has any planting ideas, they’d be gratefully received, however outlandish they may seem..!

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