Leeds: City of Data

LONDON: The Information Capital by James Cheshire & Oliver Uberti
LONDON: The Information Capital by James Cheshire & Oliver Uberti

On the last day of 2014, I stumbled across James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti’s beautiful hardcover book “London: The Information Capital: 100 maps and graphics that will change how you view the city”.

This love letter to London told in gorgeous infographics, maps and visualisations inspired me to examine my own love affair with being a digital creative in the North of England. What is it about Leeds that makes it the city of data?

I love being part of the digital technology scene in Leeds. And make no mistake, Leeds is a powerhouse when it comes to data and analytics. We have a lot going on: the only Open Data Institute (ODI) node in the world dedicated to health, Leeds Data Thing, a place to be inspired, learn, mingle, and proudly fly your data geek flag, School of Data getting you from data novice onto the path of data enlightenment and much, much more.

Leeds is a small city, the heart of which is crammed with academic bodies, creative circles, financial institutions, call centres and a thriving indoor market. For what seems like such a cosy space, Leeds is T.A.R.D.I.S-like, feeling much bigger on the inside. Perhaps this clustering and creativity is why it is ranked the fourth largest UK urban economy and a gamma level city — cities which link smaller economic regions directly into the world economy.

What makes Leeds a leader in data though is more than just initiatives and institutions; the secret sauce is what makes Leeds a city so close to my heart: the people. Leeds, in general, is a friendly city and people make the magic happen. We have data superstars like Mark Barratt of Hebeworks and a supporting cast of people progressing Leeds as a city dedicated to getting the most out of data.

Leeds Tube Map by Rich Daley
Leeds Tube Map by Rich Daley
Rich Daley
Rich Daley

Take Rich Daley. His Leeds tube map (above) imagines Leeds with an underground system to rival London’s. He describes his labour of love as “looking for centres of civilization on Google Satellite View using visual cues and then searching around on Wikipedia etc. for a bit of information about each location I found”. This is data meeting creativity.

It’s not the only map being produced here. HebeWorks is working on a creative sector map, the ODI node is building a digital asset map. These are both social not geographic maps and they’ll provide insight into the communities of practice in Leeds. The best thing about these initiatives? Combined and remixed as open data, they will be more than the sum of their parts. This is the very essence of the small data phenomenon.

Amy De-Balsi of Herd
Amy De-Balsi of Herd

From maps to work. What if you’re coming back into the digital technology space and you want to know who’s doing what in Leeds? Where would you go? Enter HerdAmy De-Balsi’s startup aggregates open data and publicly available information (obtained with permission) into a singularity for digital technology job seekers.

She also ended up with a rather snazzy asset map of companies operating in this space. What I love about Herd is that Amy is no data geek, or as she puts it “All the job information is open data and Herd was set up after using that data to build the business model. I’m no techie so it was a long week with spreadsheets but I can now monitor the members’ websites through open tools such as, Import.io. Without open data, I would have got a “proper” job rather than set up my own business”.

Rachel Kettlewell of RealIT
Rachel Kettlewell of RealIT

On the flip side, we have people who use data everyday to give them insight, build connections, track trends and get their jobs done more effectively. Rachel Kettlewell of Real Staffing is a recruitment agent with a difference. Being in the heart of the city, she’s keen to meet face to face. She puts it this way “I realised very early on how saturated the recruitment market is, and how many calls both contractors and hiring mangers get so I found a way to differentiate myself by meeting people, something which takes a lot of contractors by surprise — Often contractors who have been in the market for 10+ years have never met an agent”.

This is something I appreciate in these days of electronic messaging, that human connection that’s so important. She exclusively recruits data experts, so I was curious how she saw the trends in Leeds: “To me, meeting people is key as the data and analytics market is going from strength to strength, so competition for roles from recruiters and contractors is only going to increase”.

In such a busy marketplace, competitive advantage is crucial, this is how she describes using data to maintain it: “Data and analytics is something I am encouraged to use in my role, and I often analyse my business and use the data when speaking to clients”.

Leeds also shows how data can bring people together. Specifically, open data. Kriss and shi of Wetgenes are game designers and serial creators. When Leeds city council needed to know “How much public art is out there in Leeds?” they turned to Wetgenes.
Wetgenes
Wetgenes

This is how shi described the experience: “The council obviously knows about most of these artworks but the dataset is incomplete so the challenge was to come up with something to fix this. Since we make games, the first thing that comes to mind was something interactive and community building.”

In 2 weeks, and with limited resources, they came up with Leeds Art Crawl: a pub crawl but with art. The simplicity of use is the key to Leeds Art Crawl’s success. The data is crowdsourced and available as open data. You can get an art crawl for your city through their Patreon page or listen to their tech podcast: IT Stuff for more, well, IT stuff.

Four people, four different applications of data. Leeds has many more stories, communities, organisations and institutions that make it an exciting time to live and work in this city of data. I think Rachel said it best: “Companies are now having a real focus on data, whether that is tidying up unstructured data and data cleansing, or going as far as data mining and predictive analysis — In my opinion, this is without a doubt the market to be in!”. And without doubt, if you’re innovating with data, Leeds is the city to be in.

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