How Open Data Helps Social Value – Can Social Value be Objective?
Want to know how open data helps us evaluate social value? Imagine if football games were decided by using a system similar to how we track data on social value in the construction industry.
Leeds United play Brentford and the teams draw. However, after the game, Brentford claim victory because they have a bigger squad and more backroom staff. In riposte, Leeds say they should have won because a higher percentage of their players were promoted from their youth academy and they have a bigger stadium.
If every team only rates themselves against their own measure of success, how could you build a meaningful league table at the end of the season? Even on this simplistic level both teams are creating value through jobs, training and business spend but we cannot compare the two. Imagine trying to track a team’s progress over a number of years to work out whether they were progressing in a meaningful way, rather than just hitting some arbitrary targets.
Uses of Open Data to Create Better Social Impact
Open data could allow us to show people the real difference we are making. It is a way of eradicating the subjectivity of social value, where companies and their clients set themselves targets that look good in order to tick a box, whether it has any real impact or not.
In addition, open data can help us understand that what will make a positive impact on one project isn’t necessarily the right approach for another.
You may work on a project in an area with a high number of NEETs, in which case, providing long term sustainable apprenticeships is a socially valuable act. In another area with near full employment, there will be a different challenge.
Suicide rates of male on site construction workers, both low and high skilled, are currently more than twice the national average, so providing mental health support for our existing industry’s workforce is an area we should be potentially concentrating on. We have to look at the real challenges facing the industry and the local area on every individual project we undertake, rather than some enforced concept of what social value is as a whole. Open data helps us identify these priorities.
Setting a Social Value Standard
Football leagues work because there is a standard scoring system with a predetermined number of points for all the possible outcomes of the game. Everyone is in the same position because they all play each other twice. We do not ask the teams to rate their own performance and rank themselves accordingly; instead we analyse the actual data produced during each game and that does the job for us.
Currently, social value in construction isn’t a level playing field because everyone measures it in a different way; it’s easy for companies and clients to claim that they are ‘better’ at social value merely by manipulating privately held data. It is completely subjective. This makes it impossible to track the full impact of companies’ and client’s social value efforts, because we just don’t know to which standard they are working;
Using open data we can contrast and compare, we can share experiences, we can look deeper into the data to find out whether we are making a real difference.
We can also ensure we are concentrating our efforts in areas where we can make the most difference to the communities in which we all work.
So how do we go about setting a standard? Can we make social value more objective? I think the answer to this is an emphatic “yes”. I’ve been inspired by the work of groups such as the Open Data Institute (ODI) Leeds who have tackled very similar challenges using freely available data. CHY is hosting an event at ODI Leeds on March 26th to identify opportunities to innovate in social value using open data.
Using Open Data to Allow Social Value to be More Objective
“What is local?” is a constant discussion point on nearly every forum and project I have been involved in; and also one we rarely all agree on. This is due to the multitude of different influences at play, whether political (focussed on electoral wards, districts and city regions), practical (focussed on the distance from site, travel-to-work area) or personal (focus on the needs of your community).
A real-life example was a major contractor working in Leeds stating that “local employment” will be drawn from a 50 mile radius, a figure that was informed by the contractor’s data collection processes. It is important to note that Manchester is only 36 miles away and, as most in the north are aware, there are few Mancunians or Loiners that would deem residents of the other city as ‘local’. In fact, when I was employed to set up Construction Leeds in 2006, one of the unofficial objectives was to “stop vans coming across the Pennines down the M62.”
In comparison a recent project I worked on in Dounreay had a local authority defined travel-to-work area that included Dornoch, which is 49.3 miles away. This was informed by the population, skills and transport infrastructure in this much more rural area.
You therefore cannot define local employment as within 50 miles on both these projects and satisfy all the stakeholders. So people inherently move to a more subjective approach; defining “local” in different ways, using different data (if any) to inform their definition and therefore provide little or no measure of success or failure.
I believe we can use open data to objectively define “local” for any location in the UK. The definition could be informed by the nearby working age population, unemployment levels, educational attainment, skills levels, business density and sector, real-time transport infrastructure and more to provide us with a true indication of what local social and economic impact is feasible to expect from a project.
In fact, some of this data has already been visualised by Tom Forth at ODI Leeds with their Hexmaps.
Social Value Accounts
When we finally view social value objectively, we can track its impact much easier. We can even develop a system for social value accountancy, just as we track our finances through traditional accountancy.
This is an end goal for many organisations within the social value sector but this cannot happen without some amount of objectivity and a high level of collaboration between industry bodies that might otherwise prefer to go it alone on their own terms; but that particular subject is for another blog. If we don’t use the same scale we can’t provide a truly accurate and honest reporting system.
If everyone uses the same metrics, we can see how well the construction industry is really doing with regards to social value. We can better work towards our objectives because we have a better idea of where we actually stand, as opposed to where we believe we stand.
It will help us direct our resources into the areas of each project that will bring the best social value return on investment and, ultimately, make the biggest legitimate positive difference.
Open data is a critical tool to achieve this, no matter how much you wish you could just add a few more goals onto your team’s total and call it a win.
I’d love to hear your views, and where better than on March 26th at the CHY Social Value / Open Data Innovation event? Come along and grab me for a chat. Click here for details.