10th December 2013

Measuring what matters


In our latest GeoVation Challenge, we are calling for ideas that encourage active lifestyles, particularly in open spaces, such as parks.

Nesta is an innovation charity that runs projects which help people and organisations bring great ideas to life. Nesta, in partnership with The Heritage Lottery Fund and The Big Lottery Fund, are currently running a Rethinking Parks Programme looking for bold and innovative ways to use, manage and make the most of the UK’s public parks.

In our guest blog today Lydia Ragoonanan, Rethinking Parks programme manager explains why we need better intelligence to keep our parks going.

If we measure what matters, then it has to be Photo of family in bike in parkmore than just waistlines if we are to encourage more active lifestyles in Britain.  Whilst we have a wealth of data about the benefits of physical activity, our data about how and where people access outdoor spaces is less healthy. Ordnance Survey report that a critical factor to getting out and getting active is having close, easy and pleasant access to outside space.  

Both the Rethinking Parks programme and GeoVation’s latest Active Lifestyles challenge aim to address the issue, albeit from different angles.

GeoVation’s latest challenge calls to action geographers, data crunchers, fitness fanatics and others to explore how we can encourage more active lifestyles in the UK using open data.

But much of our open space is under threat. With public sector funding for parks set to fall by 60 per cent or more over the next decade our public parks are at risk.  In the 1970s and 1980s many of our public parks were perceived as wastelands, unkempt and unsafe – and certainly not enticing enough to walk, run, cycle, practice thai chi or play a casual game of football in.

This is where Rethinking Parks comes in.  At Nesta, we have teamed up with the Big Lottery Fund and Heritage Lottery Fund to ensure that our public parks continue to thrive into the next century.  The £1 million fund aims to surface new business models that will sustain our parks.  There are already many good examples out there of innovative models for management of parks, such as Northala Fields where a charity uses the park’s lake in return for managing aspects of the park.  Lambeth Council is planning three different approaches for managing parks cooperatively with citizens.  Others, like Potters Fields Park Trust, are using different revenue generating models.

These approaches go some way to meet the parks challenge, but we will need more models and better data on parks to ensure they remain relevant and sustainable.

Whilst our parks today are certainly more pleasant to be in than a few decades ago, our data on their use remains patchy at best.  Getting accurate data even on the number of parks is hard enough, let alone what people are using them for.

There are some examples though of where a combination of smart thinking and technology point to solutions to the data challenge.  The best example I’ve found to date is at the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston.  Through monitoring smart phone and wifi use across the park, the management team can gather a good understanding of where and when people are using the park – and target events, mobile food trucks and activities accordingly.

The adage ‘use it or lose it’ springs to mind, and in building the case to ensure our parks remain well-used and well-maintained we need to have the right intelligence to back up our thinking.

If you have a great idea about how to Rethink Parks, get in touch. The programme runs for two years, and we will be running workshops for interested organisations and partnerships who want to know more in January.

Meanwhile the GeoVation Challenge runs to 8 January 2014, so if you have a great idea on how you can encourage active lifestyles in Britain, please enter your ideas.  As with previous GeoVation Challenges we are looking for great ideas which address the problems using geography, technology and good design. Ordnance Survey will be offering a slice of £100,000 to help develop ventures that make best use of our data, including OS OpenData and OS OpenSpace, together with other open data to solve problems.