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City University London helps local authority improve public services through data visualization

With the public sector facing pressure to reduce costs and improve transparency, City's giCentre is helping a local authority to better understand and inform citizens.
by Luke Nava

City University London has teamed up with Leicestershire County Council (LCC) to create an online resource that enables its staff and citizens to better understand public satisfaction with local services and amenities. Using an innovative combination of interactive maps and graphics, the authority can now tailor its services according to feedback from its residents.

Coming at a time when the public sector is under pressure to reduce costs and improve transparency, LCC is the first UK local authority to use this approach. It has been piloted using a survey of 8,000 citizens, which asked how happy they are with their area and the services they are offered by the council, as well as partners such as the emergency services and the NHS.

The new website, developed by City’s giCentre, allows employees and the public to interpret the survey results using data visualization - an increasingly important series of techniques that present and provide access to data through graphics. These are manipulable, enabling specific information to be extracted rapidly and previously unnoticed trends to be uncovered. It is available at www.lsr-online.org/placesurvey.html.

Responses from residents across Leicestershire’s 134 electoral wards are visualized. Participants were asked their level of satisfaction with 57 aspects of life in the county, as well as personal characteristics such as gender, age, ethnicity and health, although no individuals can be identified from the results.

“The volume and complexity of data generated by resident surveys means that it is difficult to analyse in its raw format. Using data visualization to interpret the results, however, enables citizens to explore them in more depth than usually provided. We hope that this will help people to reflect on what they value about their community and to find out what neighbours think across the county.” 

Aidan Slingsby, Willis Research Fellow, City University London

“With the public sector facing cut-backs and being encouraged to open up its data, the application is timely – it gives our residents a greater understanding of what the Council is doing in their immediate locale, while enabling us to see which areas of our provision are doing well or could benefit from increased investment.”

Robert Radburn, Research Manager, LCC

An array of information about Leicestershire can be explored – from how satisfied residents are with the quality of refuse and recycling collections to whether they feel well-informed about how their council tax is spent. The degree to which responses vary amongst groups of people with particular characteristics or from particular places can also be considered, for example: comparing the views of 66-75 year olds to those of 18-25 year olds; contrasting the opinions of people who have lived in the same place for more than 20 years with those of recent arrivals; or seeing whether people in one district are more satisfied than those in another.

An introductory tutorial greets users when they first begin exploring the survey results, making the information accessible to as wide an audience as possible, despite the novelty of the graphics, interactions and modes of discovery that are being used in this innovative approach.

The work has been supported by the Department for Communities and Local Government’s (CLG) Timely Information to Citizens initiative, which is funding 20 local authority pilots to test a range of innovative methods through which local authorities can improve citizens’ access to their information. LCC hopes to use similar approaches in future to visualize the results from other surveys and data sets, making these available to citizens and council employees to tailor services.

The giCentre has recently received national and international recognition for its innovative, applied data visualization research, including two awards at the Geographic Information Systems Research UK (GISRUK) Conference 2010 and four awards at the world’s leading visualization conference, IEEE VisWeek, held in Salt Lake City in October 2010.

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