Smarter tourism: solving the data problem to boost tourism and create better cities

By Steven McGinty

On 22 March, I attended ‘Smarter Tourism: Shaping Glasgow’s Data Plan’, an event held as part of DataFest 2017, a week-long festival of data innovation with events hosted across Scotland.

Daniel MacIntyre, from Glasgow City Marketing Bureau (the city’s official marketing organisation), opened the event by highlighting Glasgow’s ambitious target of increasing visitor numbers from two million to three million by 2023.

To achieve this goal, Mr MacIntyre explained that the city would be looking to develop a city data plan, which would outline how the city should use data to solve its challenges and to provide a better experience for tourists.

In many ways, Glasgow’s tourism goal set the context for the presentations that followed, providing the attendees – who included professionals from the technology and tourism sectors, as well as academia and local government – with an understanding of the city’s data needs and how it could be used.

Identifying the problem

From very early on, there was a consensus in the room that tourism bodies have to identify their problems before seeking out data.

A key challenge for Glasgow, Mr MacIntyre explained, was a lack of real time data. Much of the data available to the city’s marketing bureau was historic (sometimes three years old), and gathered through passenger or visitor experience surveys. It was clear that Mr MacIntrye felt that this approach was rather limiting in the 21st century, highlighting that businesses, including restaurants, attractions, and transport providers were all collecting data, and if marketing authorities could work in collaboration and share this data, it could bring a number of benefits.

In essence, Mr MacIntyre saw Glasgow using data in two ways. Firstly, to provide a range of insights, which could support decision making in destination monitoring, development, and marketing. For instance, having data on refuse collection could help ensure timely collections and cleaner streets. A greater understanding of restaurant, bar, and event attendances could help develop Glasgow’s £5.4 million a year night time economy by producing more informed licensing policies. And the effectiveness of the city’s marketing could be improved by capturing insights from social media data, creating more targeted campaigns.

Secondly, data could be used to monitor or evaluate events. For example, the impact of sporting events such as Champions League matches – which increase visitor numbers to Glasgow and provide an economic boost to the city – could be far better understood.

Urban Big Data Centre (UBDC)

One potential solution to Glasgow City Marketing Bureau’s need for data may be organisations such as the Urban Big Data Centre.

Keith Dingwall, Senior Business Manager for the UBDC, explained that the centre supports researchers, policymakers, businesses, third sector organisations, and citizens by providing access to a wide variety of urban data. Example datasets include: housing; health and social care data; transport data; geospatial data; and physical data.

The UBCD is also involved in a number of projects, including the integrated Multimedia City Data (iMCD) project. One interesting aspect of this work involved the extraction of Glasgow-related data streams from multiple online sources, particularly Twitter. The data covers a one year period (1 Dec 2015 – 30 Nov 2015) and could provide insights into the behaviour of citizens or their reaction to particular events; all of which, could be potentially useful for tourism bodies.

Predictive analytics

Predictive analytics, i.e. the combination of data and statistical techniques to make predictions about future events, was a major theme of the day.

Faical Allou, Business Development Manager at Skyscanner, and Dr John Wilson, Senior Lecturer at the University of Strathclyde, presented their Predictive Analytics for Tourism project, which attempted to predict future hotel occupancy rates for Glasgow using travel data from Glasgow and Edinburgh airport.

Glasgow City Marketing Bureau also collaborated on the project – which is not too surprising as there a number of useful applications for travel data, including helping businesses respond better to changing events, understanding the travel patterns of visitors to Glasgow, and recommending personalised products and services that enhance the traveller’s experience (increasing visitor spending in the city).

However, Dr Wilson advised caution, explaining that although patterns could be identified from the data (including spikes in occupancy rates), there were limitations due to the low number of datasets available. In addition, one delegate, highlighted a ‘data gap’, suggesting that the data didn’t cover travellers who flew into Glasgow or Edinburgh but then made onward journeys to other cities.

Uber

Technology-enabled transport company, Uber, has been very successful at using data to provide a more customer oriented service. Although much of Uber’s growth has come from its core app – which allows users to hire a taxi service – they are also introducing innovative new services and integrating their app into platforms such as Google Maps, making it easier for customers to request taxi services.

And in some locations, whilst Uber users are travelling, they will receive local maps, as well as information on nearby eateries through their UberEATS app.

Uber Movement, an initiative which provides access to the anonymised data of over two billion urban trips, has the potential to improve urban planning in cities. It includes data which helps tourism officials, city planners, policymakers and citizens understand the impact of rush hours, events, and road closures in their city.

Chris Yiu, General Manager at Uber, highlighted that people lose weeks of their lives waiting in traffic jams. He suggested that the future of urban travel will involve a combination of good public transport services and car sharing services, such as uberPOOL (an app which allows the user to find local people who are going in their direction), providing the first and last mile of journeys.

Final thoughts

The event was a great opportunity to find out about the data challenges for tourism bodies, as well as initiatives that could potentially provide solutions.

Although a number of interesting issues were raised throughout the day, two key points kept coming to the forefront. These were:

  1. The need to clarify problems and outcomes – Many felt it was important that cities identified the challenges they were looking to address. This could be looked at in many ways, from addressing the need for more real-time data, to a more outcome-based approach, such as the need to achieve a 20% reduction in traffic congestion.
  2. Industry collaboration – Much of a city’s valuable data is held by private sector organisations. It’s therefore important that cities (and their tourism bodies) encourage collaboration for the mutual benefit of all partners involved. Achieving a proposition that provides value to industry will be key to achieving smarter tourism for cities.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in: 

Graduate ‘brain drain’ – is regional economic growth the solution?

college graduates groupBy Heather Cameron

With the economic performance of cities and regions increasingly reliant on the skills of their workforce, the longstanding issue of graduate ‘brain drain’ to London and the south is something that needs to be addressed.

Although students attend many of the universities spread across the country, a significant number of graduates flock towards the capital at the end of their studies. According to a recent report from Centre for Cities, this deprives other cities of skilled workers and essentially damages the overall economy.

The evidence

A quarter of all new graduates in 2014 and 2015 were found to have moved to work in London within the six months of finishing their degree. And the highest achievers make up a significant proportion. While London accounts for around 19% of all jobs, of the graduates that moved city six months after graduation London employed 22% of all working new graduates, and 38% of those with a first or upper second class degree from a Russell Group university.

Although most cities experience an overall graduate gain, cities outside London don’t retain the majority of students that move to their city to study – the ‘bouncers’ that drive the brain drain overall, overshadowing any gain:

  • Manchester lost 67% of these students upon graduation;
  • Birmingham lost 76%; and
  • Southampton lost 86%.

Other figures show that 310,000 graduates have left the north in the past decade, contributing to a net average deficit of 7,500 highly qualified workers leaving annually, or 75,500 over a decade.

Northern regions have to some extent offset the effect of local brain drain by attracting enough highly qualified foreign workers to fill the gap. But with reductions in immigration, these regions could be left lacking.

Given the UK’s current position regarding the EU, concerns have also been raised over whether Britain faces a further brain drain of academics to Europe, following Brexit. A recent survey highlighted that 42% of academics said they are more likely to consider leaving Britain after the vote to leave.

Why?

While it may seem plausible to assume that higher salaries are the reason for this brain drain, it appears that the main pull for graduates is the availability of jobs and career progression, which London’s vast labour market offers.

However, as recent research from Homes for the North has identified, these are not the only reasons. It highlights the importance of additional non-work drivers of graduate location decisions, including the cost and quality of housing, quality of local amenities and the prospect of home ownership.

Of the graduates polled, 80% said the quality of housing was important, while more than 60% said the cost of housing was important. The quality of green spaces and local amenities was also deemed important by over 60% of graduates.

What can be done to redress the balance?

There have been numerous graduate retention initiatives at the local and regional level aimed at tackling the uneven distribution of graduates, such as graduate wage subsidies and local graduate job matching.  But it seems little has improved. The Centre for Cities research argues that these alone will not tackle the root cause of the graduate brain drain.

It suggests that cities themselves have a vital role to play in ensuring the local job market offers an appropriate number of graduate job opportunities that will allow them to both retain graduates and attract graduates from elsewhere. Policy should therefore broaden its focus to improve local economies by investing in transport, housing and enterprise, rather than focusing solely on graduate retention and attraction policies.

The chief executive of the Centre for Cities commented that the government’s new economic and industrial strategy should be used to strengthen existing devolution deals for city-regions such as Greater Manchester, extending their scope to grow.

Indeed, the industrial strategy green paper, published in January, clearly places emphasis on addressing the economic imbalances across the UK through a number of measures, such as working with local areas to close the skills gap, including new schemes to support the retention and attraction of graduates. However, the strategy has been criticised for providing little clarity on how regional rebalancing and sectoral deals will work in practice.

Final thoughts

While it appears clear that cities outside London need to improve their graduate offer with better job prospects, the evidence on graduate migration suggests it is more complex than this.

As has been argued, the provision of good quality affordable housing could play a role alongside high-skilled job creation and opportunities. With the cost of living in London so expensive, this would make sense, particularly as the average graduate salary in London is not that much higher than the average across other UK cities.


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Can they fix it? Reactions to the white paper on housing

By James Carson

After a delay of several months, the government’s housing white paper was finally published last week.  Its title – “Fixing our broken housing market” – makes clear that England’s housing market requires radical reform. The communities secretary, Sajid Javid underlined this when presenting the paper to MPs:

“We have to build more, of the right homes in the right places, and we have to start right now.”

The key proposals

The white paper contains 29 policy proposals. These include:

  • developers will be forced to use-or-lose planning permission within two years
  • local authorities will be required to keep an up-to-date local plan to meet housing demand
  • an expanded and more flexible affordable homes programme, for housing associations and local authorities
  • developers will be encouraged to avoid “low-density” housing where land availability is short
  • the time allowed between planning permission and the start of building will be reduced from three to two years
  • incentives for build to let
  • the Green Belt will continue to be protected, and may only be built on “in exceptional circumstances”

In addition, the paper proposes the establishment of a £3bn fund to help smaller building firms challenge major developers, and a “lifetime ISA” to help first-time buyers save for a deposit. The white paper also confirmed government plans to ban letting agency fees for tenants.

The paper proposes placing a cap of £80,000 (£90,000 in London) on starter homes (new-build homes for first-time buyers between 23 and 40 years old and sold at least 20% below market value). And it signals that 10% of all new homes should be starter homes (the current requirement is 20%).

Reaction to the proposals: the politicians

The communities secretary described the white paper’s proposals as “bold” and “radical”, but some responses have suggested that the new strategy will fail to meet the challenge of England’s housing crisis.

Describing the plans as “feeble beyond belief”, Labour’s shadow housing minister, John Healey observed: “This white paper is not a plan to fix the housing crisis. And it will do nothing to reverse seven years of failure on housing we’ve seen since 2010. There are 200,000 fewer home-owners, homelessness has doubled, and affordable house-building has slumped to a 24-year low.”

The Green Party’s co-leader Jonathan Bartley said the policies were a “slap in the face for the millions of people in this country desperate for bold plans to reduce rents and make their housing affordable”.

On build to rent, Tom Copley, Labour’s London Assembly housing spokesperson welcomed the shift in focus from home ownership, but was concerned about the scope of the proposals:  “…whilst the promise of longer tenancies is welcome, its bearing will be miniscule unless it is extended to existing rental properties, where the vast majority of renters actually live.”

Reaction: architects, housing bodies and builders

Simon Henley, of architects Halebrown, welcomed the paper’s proposals to help smaller building firms challenge major developers – “More and smaller housebuilders will bring variety and inspiration.”  But he added that “reasonably priced land is vital to the equation for great homes.”

Alex Ely of the Mae architecture practice was disappointed with the continuing restrictions on building on the Green Belt, observing that “We know that just a 1km ring of Green Belt from inside the M25 would yield enough land for a generation of building at current rates.”

Terrie Alafat, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing said the package of measures demonstrates a commitment to tackle the housing crisis. “However our concern is that much housing remains out of reach for a significant number of people and we would like to see the government back up the package of measures with additional funding and resource in the budget.”

Stewart Baseley, executive chairman of the Home Builders Federation welcomed plans to bring forward more developable land: “If we are to build more homes, we need more land coming through the system more quickly.”

Reaction: homeowners and renters

Dan Wilson Craw, director of Generation Rent argued that the white paper failed to offer renters anything of substance. “Renters on stagnant wages need homes that cost no more than a third of their income, not ones let at 80% of the market rent, with a sticker that says ‘affordable’.”

Meanwhile, Paula Higgins, chief executive of HomeOwners Alliance, called for more action and fewer words. “It’s difficult to see how these measures will enable the government to meet its target of one million new homes by 2020.”

Reaction: the LGA and Shelter

Speaking for the Local Government Association (LGA), housing spokesman Councillor Martin Tett noted that the white paper contains signs that the government is listening to councils on how to boost housing supply and increase affordability. But he called for more support to enable local authorities to tackle the housing shortage: “…councils desperately need the powers and access to funding to resume their historic role as a major builder of affordable homes. This means being able to borrow to invest in housing and to keep 100 per cent of the receipts from properties sold through Right to Buy to replace homes and reinvest in building more of the genuine affordable homes our communities desperately need.”

Writing on the organisation’s blog, Shelter’s Steve Akehurst described the white paper as a step, rather than a leap in the right direction:

“Overall, the shift in emphasis – towards tackling big developers and dysfunctions in the land market, towards making renting more stable, and delivering more affordable homes – is really welcome, and there are some good first steps to making them a reality. In reality more will be needed to deliver upon these lofty ambitions in full… But today is a good start.”

The next steps

The government is consulting on the planning proposals set out in the first two chapters of the white paper, with a closing date of 2 May 2017. After considering the responses, the government will decide on how to take its strategy forward.

As the paper concludes, millions of people who can’t afford to buy or rent already know that the housing market is broken. Fixing it will be a job not only for the government, but for local authorities, developers, housing associations and local communities.

Time will tell whether the proposals set out in the white paper are radical enough to help the homeowners and tenants of tomorrow.


You may also find these blog posts on housing of interest:

Introducing the Idox Information Service … supporting evidence use for over 40 years

Exterior of the Idox Information Service office in Glasgow

Exterior of the Idox Information Service office in Glasgow

As a team who work every day to supply evidence and good practice to our clients in the public sector and consultancies, it would be easy to feel a bit down about the ease with which the idea of a post-truth world has taken grip.

In fact however, it’s heartening that so many organisations continue to recognise the value that our service brings. Not only does it offer a continuing professional development resource for staff, it also acts as a channel for knowledge sharing between organisations – helping them when they have to review services, look for efficiencies, or transform what they do in light of changing government policy or priorities.

We know that much of what we do can remain hidden, even to our own members. So let’s go under the bonnet of our unique service …

Who we are

The Idox Information Service is a membership library service, which was established over forty years ago – originally under the name of the Planning Exchange. At the outset, the emphasis was on the provision of resources to support professionals working in planning and the built environment in Scotland, but over the years we’ve expanded our subject coverage to cover the whole spectrum of public sector information, and across the UK.

Our members include policy makers and practitioners from organisations including local authorities, central government, universities, think tanks, consultancies and charities. They work in challenging environments and often need evidence to inform service delivery or decision-making.

Our work

Our team is made up of a mix of researchers, public policy specialists and qualified librarians, along with support staff. They have professional memberships, including chartered membership of CILIP and the Social Research Association. This picture shows the typical range of activities in a year:

2014 statsPublic policy is an ever-evolving subject and so current awareness services are a big part of what we do. Members can set up their own subject alerts on anything that interests them, and we also have a set of weekly and fortnightly updates on common topics. Last year we added three new current awareness updates on Devolution, Smart Cities and of course, Brexit!

UK grey literature is a particular strength of our collection. We spend a lot of time sourcing documents such as technical reports from government agencies, and research reports produced by think tanks, university departments, charities and consultancies which are often overlooked by other databases. Recent research has highlighted the value of grey literature for public policy and practice.

We also write our own research briefings for members on different topics, with more detailed analysis of research and policy developments, and including case studies and good practice. Some of these briefings are publicly available on our publications page.

The interest from members in using our Ask a Researcher service has been increasing, due to the time pressures and other challenges that people face in sourcing and reviewing information. An example looking at the links between employee wellbeing and productivity is on our website. Members regularly comment on the usefulness of the results, and it’s satisfying to be able to make a direct contribution to their work in this way.

Keeping it personal

While our online database allows our members to search for and access resources themselves, there is a strong personal element to our work.

Our members know that we’re always available at the end of the phone or via email to provide them with dedicated support when they need it. It’s important to us that we provide a quality service which keeps pace with the changing needs and expectations of a varied membership base.

Hopefully, this article has provided some insight into the way that the Knowledge Exchange supports staff and organisations across a variety of fields. More information about the service can be found here.


In 2015, the Idox Information Service was recognised as a key organisation supporting evidence use in government and the public sector. It was named by NESTA / Alliance for Useful Evidence / Social Innovation Partnership in their mapping of the UK evidence ecosystem.

We also contribute data to the Social Policy and Practice database, which focuses on health and social care evidence, and is a resource recommended by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Is it time to start building on the Green Belt?

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The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.”
William Blake, 1799

The forthcoming Housing White Paper from the Department for Communities and Local Government is expected to tackle the thorny issue of the Green Belt. Initially due for publication at the end of 2016, the paper has now been delayed twice, heightening speculation about its contents.

The Telegraph has suggested that councils are likely to be encouraged to make greater use of the controversial policy of ‘green belt swaps’. Green Belt swaps allow councils to remove protections on one part of green belt in return for creating a new area of protected land elsewhere.  This may enable councils to better meet demand for housing.  Current planning legislation for Green Belt swaps already exists, but often fails to work in practice. Proposals are often rejected at the planning stage due to the newly identified land failing to meet Green Belt definitions. The Times indicates that the White Paper may contain a more aggressive approach towards the use of the Green Belt for housing.

Potential benefits

There is no denying the need for more housing.  In general, experts agree that a minimum of 200,000 new homes will be needed each year in order to keep up with demand.

Recent government statistics on Green Belt in England in 2015/16 estimated that it covered around 13% of the land area of England. It has been argued that development on just 1% of reclassified Green Belt would allow for almost half a million new homes to be built. However, building upon the Green Belt provokes much passionate debate.

Proponents of green belt flexibility argue that:

Paul Cheshire, Professor Emeritus of Economic Geography, LSE, argues that many opponents of building on the Green Belt hold a romanticised image of the nature of the land, which is not truly representative of the majority of Green Belt land.

“Of course parts of the Green Belts are real environmental and amenity treasures, such as the beautiful bits of rolling Hertfordshire, the Chilterns or the North Downs. Or rather, the beautiful bits to which there is public access. Such areas really need to be preserved against development. But almost all Green Belt land is privately owned, so the only access is if there are viable public rights of way.”

He goes on to suggest selective building on the least attractive parts of Green Belts, which are close to cities where people want to live.

A similar sentiment is found in the recent LSE report ‘A 21st Century Metropolitan Green Belt’. Dr Alan Mace, Assistant Professor of Urban Planning Studies at LSE (one of the authors of the report) concludes that:

“People often look at the Green Belt and say, ‘who would want to lose this?’ but often they’re looking at land that is protected in other ways, such as Metropolitan Parks or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and this would not change. Some parts of the Green Belt are neither aesthetically pleasing nor environmentally valuable and these are the areas that should be looked at for potential development.”

Potential limitations

However, Green Belt swaps are not without potential problems.  For example, Shelter has cautioned that Green Belt flexibility “could create a mini industry in speculative land trading in Green Belt areas, making cheap land release much harder as landowners hold out for high prices”.

There is also much opposition to building on the Green Belt among the general public and environmental groups. Paul Miner, planning campaign manager at CPRE, is concerned that the Green Belt is being chipped away, arguing that, among its benefits, the Green Belt:

“…continues to provide impetus for urban regeneration, and makes environmental and economic sense in protecting the breathing space around our towns and cities.”

Perhaps Rowan Moore, writing in the Guardian, neatly describes the desire of many to protect the Green Belt when he states “The fact that it is named in the singular, although there are many green belts, indicates its status as an idea, even an ideal, as well as a place. It is part of English, if not British, national identity, protected by the shade of William Blake”.

Future policy

The government has remained tight-lipped on the contents of the White Paper, but if they do choose to include Green Belt swaps as a key feature of the paper, they will face an uphill battle in tackling public perception and reassuring environmental and conservation groups.

Reconciling these differences of opinion will not be easy.  Ensuring that there is no overall loss in the total land area and overall quality of the Green Belt will no doubt be a key step towards addressing this.


Follow us on Twitter to keep up to date with the latest news on the publication of the Housing White Paper and other planning policy developments.

‘Think globally, act locally’ – local job creation

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By Heather Cameron

The Local Government Association (LGA) last week called for greater devolution of employment and skills funding to councils and a ‘radical rethink’ of the way Jobcentre Plus works. Chairman of the LGA’s People and Places Board said:

“Job centres need to engage with more unemployed people for a start and then help more claimants move into sustainable employment. This is crucial to boosting local growth. Councils know best how to do this. We know our local economies, we know our local employers and we know our residents and we can bring local services together in a way central government will never be able to.”

Local solutions

Of course, local solutions for job creation and economic growth is not a new idea. Local development and job creation initiatives first emerged in the 1980s, in response to a ‘new phenomenon of high, persistent and concentrated unemployment that national policies seemed powerless to reverse on their own. Since then they have continued to spread and develop.

Although unemployment is at an 11-year low in the UK, according to recent research many countries, including the UK, are seeing widening gaps in the geographic distribution of skills and jobs. And the importance of local solutions has again been highlighted.

The OECD’s most recent edition of Job Creation and Local Economic Development argues that local development is a key tool for addressing the problem of such unequal distribution. Similarly, in its submission to last year’s Autumn Statement, the LGA argued that local government is central to the delivery of locally tailored solutions to national public policy challenges.

Boosting productivity growth, while ensuring growth delivers improved living standards and distributes the benefits of increased prosperity equally, are highlighted by the OECD as the twin challenges facing all policymakers. Underlined as a crucial but difficult task, it is argued that ‘actions originating at any single governance level or policy area will not be sufficient’.

Whole-of-government approach

The OECD report, therefore, examines how national and local actors can better work together to support economic development and job creation at the local level. In particular, it outlines what both national and local actors can do to improve the local implementation of vocational education and training (VET) and SME and entrepreneurship policies.

Among the recommendations for national actors include:

  • Design VET frameworks that allow local stakeholders to tailor training to local labour market needs while still maintaining a certain level of national consistency
  • Build the capacities needed to make VET systems more agile locally
  • Develop a strong national apprenticeship framework that builds a high quality system, includes strategically-designed incentives for employer participation, and allows for flexible delivery frameworks
  • Maximise the efficiency of SME and entrepreneurship policy delivery by allowing for local tailoring, co-locating services, using intermediary organisations to deliver programmes, and/or developing formal agreements for the division of competences and financing between governance levels
  • Develop national frameworks and strategies to support disadvantaged young people in entrepreneurship, and clearly assign responsibility for this policy portfolio to a single agency or ministry
  • Embed entrepreneurship into national education frameworks, while also providing integrated packages of entrepreneurship support in other settings to reach young people outside of the education system

Among the recommendations for local actors include:

  • Balance the need to meet pressing local labour market demands with ensuring that VET helps to move local economies to higher skilled and value-added products and services
  • Encourage VET teachers and trainers to maintain contact with local employers and industries to keep their skills and knowledge up-to-date
  • Boost employer engagement in apprenticeships
  • Tailor the delivery of apprenticeship programmes so that they work better for a broader range of employers, including SMEs, and disadvantaged populations
  • Forge connections across administrative borders in developing and co-ordinating entrepreneurship and SME policies
  • Work with organisations that have already established relationships with disadvantaged youth to maximise the reach of entrepreneurship programmes
  • To better reach disadvantaged youth, provide integrated packages of support, use hands-on learning methods, and involve entrepreneurs in programme delivery

Decentralisation?

The report concludes that local actors need both flexibility to tailor delivery of national policies to local conditions and the capacity to use this flexibility to ensure informed decision-making.

It is noted that this doesn’t necessarily mean political decentralisation, but rather ensuring the right tools are used to add local flexibility while maintaining national coherence.


If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our previous blog on Local Enterprise Partnerships

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In support of qualitative research: the value of qualitative insight for policy formation

For many people, working in the tangible, measurable area of hard figures provides an element of certainty to decision making processes. It is perhaps for this reason that quantitative research was, for many years, the largely uncontested preference for decision makers and people looking for research to evidence their decisions.research

Some criticisms that are often made of qualitative research are that it:

  • can be limited in scope and size and have a longer turnaround time than quantitative studies;
  • can be difficult to replicate and scale to achieve multiple results across multiple test sites
  • can be too reliant on researcher interpretation, perception and experience, and therefore too exposed to bias and unreliability.

In contrast, quantitative research is stereotypically presented as producing results that are consistent and replicable; and therefore ‘higher quality’ and ‘more valid’.

A question of quality

Qualitative research has always suffered from a reputatio of being less rigorous. Instead of dealing with empirical data, it deals with the more human side of research and the effects of a programme. It questions the reasoning of understanding, and the emotional implications of an intervention. As a result, qualitative researchers approach their subject from an entirely different epistemological standpoint (i.e. they have a different view of what ‘knowledge’ is, what should be judged as evidence, and what should not).

This challenges the understanding of what is meant by “research standards”. While quantitative researchers base their understanding on demonstrable results which can be proven and replicated to the same standard, qualitative research brings to the fore questions of researcher subjectivity, the concepts of validity and reliability of results and questions of ethics. It also stresses the importance not only of measuring information to gain results, but gaining results through examining and interpreting experiences and social contexts. It considers these social factors on policy outcomes rather than by categorical measurement using a predefined scale.

A mixed methods approach

While this traditional dichotomy between qualitative and quantitative research methods is convenient, in practice many organisations value the social dimension especially when looking at understanding the impact of policy interventions.

In fact many local authorities and public sector bodies, including the Greater London Authority (GLA), are increasingly looking to qualitative researchers to form part of their wider research teams. In a policy context, it is clear that qualitative research has its place alongside quantitative research as part of a mixed methods approach to evidence based policy making.

Some of the things that qualitative research brings to policy research are: a flexible research method (the methods of collection and analysis can easily be changed as the research is being conducted and the data emerges); and very rich data (if done correctly, one study could provide research data for a number of research tasks).

It allows for a deeper understanding of what lies behind results – not just that something has had an impact, but why. It also allows researchers to understand social phenomena from an individual perspective and consider the specific contexts and conditions which have contributed to it (for example, the experience of stigma or discrimination).group-discussion_unsplash

Giving a voice to marginalised groups

Qualitative research is also finding a role in evaluative research teams, looking at the meanings and constructions which made an intervention effective or ineffective and potential steps to make it more successful in the future.

One example is in engaging with hard-to-reach or marginalised people. While quantitative research would tell you that certain groups of people engage less frequently in community groups for example, qualitative research would help to explore what motivates people to engage, and therefore tease out potential methods to increase engagement. Qualitative research also allows for bespoke research questions on niche topics to be created and explored thoroughly. This can be useful for local authorities who wish to explore issues at a local level with specific communities which would not necessarily be distinct within wider national quantitative data sets and statistics.

Supporting the personalisation agenda with bespoke research

Qualitative research is also becoming more popular as a supplementary option to hard data and raw statistics because of the increased importance which is being placed on individual experience and personalisation in public services, particularly, but not exclusively within health and social care. Qualitative data allows researchers to get an in-depth view of how people experience services.

While it will never be a replacement for the empirical data produced by quantitative data, qualitative data brings its own benefits and enhances understanding around policies in a way that hard data often cannot. It encourages professionals to think beyond figures as a benchmark for outcomes. It also allows them to gain rich data on the experiences of marginalised groups in society, who often go unrepresented in large national quantitative data sets.


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Growing places: community gardens are rising up the policy agenda

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In April, a study by Central Scotland Green Network (CSGN) reported a significant increase in community growing between 2010 and 2015. The results of the study found a rise of 79% in the number of sites devoted to community gardens, taking the total to 84, with land coverage rising to 29 hectares.

The increasing popularity of community gardens is also reflected elsewhere in the UK. The Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens (FCFCG) estimates that there are now around 1000 community gardens around the UK.

What are community gardens?

Community gardens are defined by Greenspace Scotland as:

“locally managed pieces of land that are developed in response to and reflect the needs of the communities in which they are based.”

They differ from allotments in that the focus is on communal, rather than individual growing space. Most community gardens concentrate on cultivation of fruit and vegetables, although they may also promote complementary elements, such as recreation, biodiversity and education.

Last year, our Idox Information Service briefing on community growing highlighted a number of these projects, including the Incredible Edible community growing project in West Yorkshire and G3 Growers in Glasgow. Further examples include the Culpeper Community Garden in Islington, north London, and the Grove Community Garden in Edinburgh. Meanwhile, in Streatham, south London, a patch of waste ground next to a health centre has been transformed into a community garden by a group of patients with long-term health conditions. The garden is now supplying enough produce to sell fruit and vegetables to patients and visitors at a nearby hospital.

Benefits of Community Gardens

A 2009 report from the FCFCG identified a range of social, economic and environmental benefits stemming from community gardens. These included:

  • social interactions and inclusion
  • healthy eating
  • natural therapy (feelings of relaxation, appreciation, happiness, achievement)
  • skills development, training and development
  • environmental awareness and activities

More recently, a 2015 report on community gardens in Glasgow indicated that participants enjoy physical and mental health benefits, make new friends and develop community empowerment.

In addition, community growth projects have a role to play in the local economy, providing stepping stones to employment and generating income through the sale of fruit and vegetables.

Community gardens: the policy challenges

As the benefits of community gardens have become more apparent, public policymakers have come to view community growing as a vehicle for delivering policy goals in sectors as diverse as health and the environment, business and planning.

In Scotland, a number of community gardens are being supported by funding from the Scottish Government’s Climate Challenge Fund, administered by Keep Scotland Beautiful. Other public funders of community gardens include the Big Lottery Fund and Scottish local authorities.

Earlier this year, research findings highlighted increasing support for community gardens from policymakers in Scotland at national and local levels, and the widening range of funding policy initiatives:

“There is no doubt that national and local government policy agendas are changing in response to the mounting evidence linking urban greenspace with a range of positive health, social, economic and environmental benefits and that increased support will be available for community gardens in Scotland in the future.”

However, the authors also identified a number of challenges facing community growing projects, including planning and legal issues, land availability, funding issues, winning the support of local communities and addressing skills shortages.

Tackling these issues, the authors argued, will need support at local and national levels, but they went on to highlight problems encountered by community gardens in Scotland when applying for grant funding:

“…because the policies relevant to community gardens span such a wide range of concerns across a variety of sectors (including health, land use, social regeneration and the environment) and because funding tends to be located within individual sectors, they often feel pressured to fit in with social policy agendas and associated grant funding criteria which are not entirely suited to their original aims or the needs of their users in order to be eligible for grant money.”

As an example of this, one of the research participants recalled a local health group meeting where the direction of their community garden was pushed from a “therapeutic mental health benefit” agenda to a “back to work” agenda in order to fit in with a recent policy change.

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Looking ahead

It’s likely that prevailing policy will continue to affect the way community growing projects organise and develop. In 2015, the Scottish Parliament approved the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act, which includes provisions giving communities the right to take over land in urban and rural areas, enabling, for example, the transformation of waste ground into community garden. And in its 2016 manifesto for the Scottish Parliament elections, the Scottish National Party pledged to work through the Community Empowerment Act to increase access to land for food growing purposes to develop allotments and community gardens.

If community gardens are to grow further, it appears that organisers will have to explore inventive ways of navigating a complex funding landscape, while satisfying the objectives of policymakers at national and local levels.


If you enjoyed this blog post, you may be interested in some of our other posts on community development:

The Govanhill Baths: a successful example of community-led regeneration

SURF Awards winners: success stories in Scottish regeneration

The potential of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill to strengthen community planning

BYOD: Bring Your Own Device policy considerations for schools

Guest blog by April Bowman

Originally from Kansas, USA, April taught elementary school children before coming to Scotland to continue her academic study. She is currently in her final semester of study of the MPP Public Policy Programme at the University of Stirling where her policy specialism has been education policy and teaching practice. April has been with our Knowledge Exchange team for the last two weeks on a voluntary work experience placement.


I used to teach at a school in Las Vegas that had a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policy. These policies are becoming more widespread, especially since so many of us now carry our own  phones, tablets, and laptops around with us.

The ever-present technology allows us to be as connected and informed as we want, at any time that we choose. Sometimes, adults lament over how members of the younger generations are glued to their technology.  But BYOD (also sometimes called BYOT – Bring Your Own Technology) policies at schools can help to keep kids engaged by allowing them to interact with education content, rather than merely the latest clickbait.

7469170810_deaf87df6f_oThe benefits of BYOD

Schools and classrooms all over the UK are embracing BYOD, and employers are too. There are many documented benefits of BYOD including:

  • Classroom management – BYOD can be used as a reward or privilege to encourage positive student behaviour. This type of behavioural incentive can be used not only for individual students, but also for classes as a whole.
  • Connectivity – Integrating personal devices into school has the potential to increase engagement and connection between students, teachers, and parents.
  • Engagement – Many students always have a device with them. If you teach students how they can use the device for educational purposes at school, they may be more likely to access the same content outside of school.
  • Cost savings – If students can bring their own device, the school won’t have to buy a device for that student. This however is a controversial point of BYOD (see below).
  • Saves time – Students are already familiar with their personal device, so they spend more time learning about content and less time learning how to use a new device.

Elementary school students raising hands. View from behind.The BYOD challenges

Of course, BYOD can also present challenges. Some of these include:

  • Technology funding – Some critics believe that the money saved by not having to purchase a large number of devices will have to be spent supporting the network for the students’ own devices. In addition, money will also have to be found to fund learning content tailored for electronic devices.
  • Technology access  – Some argue that BYOD in practice highlights student socio-economic inequality. Not only will students be able to perceive their peers as being more or less advantaged, based on their ownership of a device, but those without a device may be placed at an educational disadvantage if they cannot access the learning content.
  • Data security – This is one of the more complex challenges in the BYOD debate. How can schools ensure that a network’s data is secure? Is your school’s wi-fi network equipped to support numerous devices at the same time?  What happens when a student’s NSFS (Not Safe For School) personal photos/messages get hacked through the network? Schools need to be prepared to take preventative measures to ensure that the network is secure—and be prepared to respond when security is breached. This may require hiring additional IT specialists.
  • Academic honesty – Of all the challenges that BYOD brings, this seems to be one of the greatest concerns for educational institutions. Owning a device doesn’t necessarily make a student more likely to cheat, but it certainly makes it easier, and potentially more difficult for teachers and administrators to prove (or even be aware of).
  • Parent concerns – Parents may be hesitant or unwilling to send their child to school with a costly possession. Some fear the device may be stolen or damaged – which of course raises questions about liability. Most school-wide BYOD policies emphasise that students bring devices at their own risk, and that the school cannot be held liable for a stolen or damaged device. However, if a teacher accidentally knocks it off a desk or another student throws it into the classroom fish tank, schools may find themselves in a more complicated predicament.

The Education Network (NEN) has produced a guidance note on BYOD which discusses the issues and risks in more detail.

technologyBYOD and STEM

The discussion around BYOD feeds into the wider area of technology in education. Across the UK, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) has become increasingly important. As jobs in STEM sectors grow, schools are eager to train the next generation of STEM employees. Naturally, technology is not only a tenet of STEM education, but technology skills are a necessity for young people to thrive in the present and the future. BYOD policies in schools are an important component of meeting the need for technology-savvy students.

Final thoughts

Choosing BYOD policies that work for schools can be a complex process. Classrooms, schools, local education authorities, and government agencies must consider how to design their policies to enhance student learning and skills, while ensuring that the policy protects the students and staff from harm and legal conflict.


CESG, the National Technical Authority for Information Assurance within the UK has produced guidance for public authorities on considering the security aspects of BYOD.

Read some of our other blogs on education:

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

We are in danger of repeating the same mistakes if we bemoan low attention to ‘facts’

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Guest blog post, by Paul Cairney

A key theme of some of the early analysis of Brexit is that many voters followed their feelings rather than paying attention to facts*.

For some people, this is just a part of life: to describe decision-making as ‘rational’ is to deny the inevitable use of heuristics, gut feelings, emotions, and deeply held beliefs.

For others, it is indicative of a worrying ‘post-truth politics’, or a new world in which campaigners play fast and loose with evidence and say anything to win, while experts are mistrusted and ignored or excluded from debates, and voters don’t get the facts they need to make informed decisions.

One solution, proposed largely by academics (many of whom are highly critical of the campaigns) is largely institutional: let’s investigate the abuse of facts during the referendum to help us produce new rules of engagement.

Another is more pragmatic: let’s work out how to maximise the effectiveness of experts and evidence in political debate. So far, we know more about what doesn’t work. For example:

  • Don’t simply supplypeople with more information when you think they are not paying enough attention to it. Instead, try to work out how they think, to examine how they are likely todemand and interpret information.
  • Don’t just bemoan the tendency of people to accept simple stories that reinforce their biases. Instead, try to work out how to produce evidence-based stories that can compete for attention with those of campaigners.
  • Don’t stop at providing simpler and more accessible information. People might be more likely to read a blog post than a book or lengthy report, but most people are likely to remain blissfully unaware of most academic blogs.

I’m honestly not sure how to tell good stories to capture the public imagination (beyond that time I put the word ‘shite’ in a title) but, for example, we have a lot to learn from traditional media (and from some of the most effective academics who write for them) and from scholars who study story-telling and discourse (although, ironically, discourse analysis is often one of the most jargon-filled areas in the Academy).

We have been here before (in policy studies)

This issue of agenda setting is a key feature in current discussions of (the alleged lack of) evidence-based policymaking. Many academics, in areas such as health and environmental policy, bemoan the inevitability of ‘policy based evidence’. Some express the naïve view that policymakers should think like scientists and/ or that evidence-based policymaking should be more like the idea of evidence-based medicine in which there is a hierarchy of evidence. Others try to work out how they can improve the supply of evidence or set up new institutions to get policymakers to pay more attention to facts.

Yet, a more pragmatic solution is to work out how and why policymakers demand information, and the policymaking context in which they operate. Only then can we produce evidence-based strategies based on how the world works rather than how we would like it to work.

See also:

The Politics of Evidence Based Policymaking:3 messages

Evidence-based policymaking: lecture and Q&A

‘Evidence-based Policymaking’ and the Study of Public Policy

Paul Cairney (2016) The Politics of Evidence-based Policymaking(London: Palgrave Pivot) PDF

Paul Cairney, Kathryn Oliver, and Adam Wellstead (2016) ‘To Bridge the Divide between Evidence and Policy: Reduce Ambiguity as Much as Uncertainty’, Public Administration Review, Early View (forthcoming) DOI:10.1111/puar.12555 PDF

* Then, many people on twitter vented their negative feelings about other people expressing their feelings.

Paul Cairney is Professor of Politics and Public Policy at the University of Stirling, Scotland, UK. He specialises, and is widely published in, public policy research publications relating to:  Scottish public policy; the use of evidence within policy making; and how researchers and producers of evidence can interact with, and impact, policy makers. Earlier this year he launched his new book, The Politics of Evidence Based Policy Making. He also blogs regularly on issues around: evidence based policy making (EBPM); Scottish public policy; and UK and Scottish policy styles, including prevention and early intervention.
p.a.cairney@stir.ac.uk twitter: @cairneypaul


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