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The Innovation Lab — A framework for collaboration for organisations to take charge of digital

How we created an on-demand Smart City Innovation Lab

Cultural transformation is vital to embrace the full potential of open data. The Innovation Lab allows us to engage a range of stakeholders. This in turn increases confidence in the solutions we are developing.

When it comes to open data, there are just as many unknowns as there are opportunities. It is important to find a balance between the optimistic rhetoric and meaningful outcomes. This is why, close to a year ago, we started running internal hack days at Leeds City Council. Our goal was to understand how the organisation and the city can benefit from open data. The hack model has matured into an on-demand service called the Innovation Lab, which is increasingly being used by services across the Council. This post explains how we created the Lab as well as how it is being used as part of the development cycle of working with open data.

A format that encourages collaboration

Participants in an Innovation Lab include Council staff and external technologists. Any member of staff within the service that has commissioned a Lab can participate. This includes staff with technical or administrative roles. No prior experience of working with data is required.

The technologists include programmers, game-developers and data scientists. We work closely with the network of independents from the Leeds City Region. Many of them are working on major national and international data projects with organisations such as the ODI, UN and the US Library of Congress.

Both groups are accustomed to very different working cultures. As a result it took us several attempts to create a format that meets the needs of everyone involved. This includes the ideation process as well as the structure of the day.

The one-day format we currently use has three parts. It begins with a group discussion that is followed by development time, and concludes with presentations and Q&A. During the group discussion, all participants work together to scope out the problem and come up with ideas. The technologists then work by themselves to develop the idea from their group into a proof of concept. They present these back to all participants at the end of the day.

The Innovation Lab allows us to place emphasis on individual insight, experience and creativity. It also enabled groups of people, who normally don’t work together, to collaborate with a clear business case.

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The Innovation Lab helps us bring Council staff and independent technologists to work together with a clear business case

An inclusive and open event

The format of the Lab requires a space that is open plan, with breakout options and good Wi-Fi. We deliberately choose a location outside of the Council offices to create a third space, which is a neutral environment.

The Lab is based on the hack or hackathons format, which is a unique problem solving process that encourages digital collaboration. However, we discovered that both Council staff and technologists might have had negative hackathons experiences. This is why we pay attention to the little details to ensure the Lab is open and inclusive. This also includes providing healthy food to participants and paying an honorarium to the technologists.

The Lab is run on an on-demand basis and operates on a hub and spoke model. Any service within the council can commission a lab and the central team works closely with them to plan and run the day as well as support subsequent development.

The Lab sits firmly in the middle of the development cycle and a fair amount of technical and non-technical activity takes place beforehand. For instance, we work with staff to set a clear, focussed development question. We also work with the data champion from the service to ensure that relevant data is available on the day.

We take time to explain the format and manage expectations of all participants. For example, we explain that the proof of concept may be a storyboard for an app, an infographic or a web page. This is not the final solution but the foundation for additional development.

The role of the Innovation Lab in the open data development cycle

After the Lab, one proof of concept is developed into a working prototype. We work closely with the Council service to test this prototype in a short-term pilot. Depending on the outcome, the service may scale the development. The proof of concept can also help the service take an informed procurement decision resulting in immediate savings.

As a business innovation process, the Lab ensures all development activity is closely aligned to the needs of the service. We address operational and security issues to do with the release and maintenance of open data. The Lab also allows us to address any cultural barriers to open data.

Cultural transformation is vital to embrace the full potential of open data. Using a Lab in the development cycle allows us to engage a range of stakeholders. This in turn increases confidence in the solutions we are developing.

Case study: Using open data to define the real value of recycling

We recently organised a Lab for the Waste Management Service. This is a complex service that holds large volumes of data. Working with staff we defined a development question — How can open data be used to improve recycling behaviour in hard to reach communities?

Participants from the service included communications, information governance and IT staff. External developers included a game-developer, data analyst and programmer.

This mix of skills enabled us to explore the question from different perspectives. The UX focus showed us how we can enhance existing Council web-based assets to nudge Leeds residents. The communications focus showed us how data can be used to create new narratives to engage hard to reach communities. The data analysis is helping us define algorithms to work with the large volume of data. One proof of concept has been developed into a prototype and will be evaluated via a pilot in the coming months.

Abhay Adhikari (PhD) works globally with private and public sector organisations to develop business innovation programmes to exploit the potential of new technologies. He has written on technology trends for the Guardian and has spoken at events such as TEDx, FutureEverything and Shift Happens.

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