The Importance of Open Data in Addressing the Battle Against Homelessness

During the State of Open Con 24 London conference in February, attendees were provided with a real-life example of how opening up data can address the issue of homelessness. The panel discussion, moderated by Resham Kotecha, the global head of policy at the Open Data Institute (ODI), explored the challenges faced by a London local authority and a charity in accessing relevant data. This data not only aids in making informed policy decisions but also enables the charity to provide more targeted and effective services.

Kotecha highlighted that there are numerous data sets available that are not being utilized to their full potential or publicized in a way that allows people to access them. Alessandro Nicoletti, a researcher at the national youth homeless charity Centrepoint, discussed the various definitions of homelessness, pointing out that homelessness extends beyond individuals sleeping rough. He cited data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) indicating that many people who are not sleeping on the streets are not classified as homeless.

Nicoletti mentioned that many young people rely on informal networks, such as sofa-surfing or staying at friends’ houses, without seeking help from local authorities. Despite this, they still face homelessness and poverty. The panel also addressed the lack of open data necessary to fully understand homelessness, with Salman Klar, an insight and analytics manager for Wandsworth and Richmond borough councils, emphasizing the costs and concerns associated with opening data. He mentioned that there can be political implications and resistance to sharing information.

The panel further discussed the challenges of accessing data relevant to homeless individuals, including the reliance on Freedom of Information (FOI) requests sent to local authorities. The ODI highlighted Centrepoint’s data challenges in a report, noting barriers to data sharing between local and central governments due to resource constraints and data protection concerns. The report suggested that housing associations should meet the same reporting requirements as local authorities to provide a comprehensive picture of social rental housing.

Klar acknowledged the lack of efficiency in gathering information from hundreds of councils and the difficulty in data cleansing. Gareth Davies, head of the National Audit Office, emphasized the importance of data in the public sector, stating that consistent definitions, standards, and quality are necessary for improved services and reduced costs. Klar believes that open data helps policymakers and organizations like Centrepoint better understand complex issues like homelessness and poverty. The ODI stressed the need to partner with organizations to raise awareness of the power of open data among policymakers, community groups, and the general public.

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