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Innovate Blog: Using open data to save lives

by Will Roberts, Senior Innovation Manager

Eyemouth Shannon class lifeboat Helen Hastings 13-29

Photo: RNLI/Steve Lowe

Earlier this month, a team from the Ordnance Survey published three technical blog posts on how to create impressive data visualisations with a number of different tools and techniques.  

What does this have to do with the RNLI? They used our data to create the visualisations. But not just any data; open data. Open data that anyone can download and explore. 

This is a pretty big deal for us. 

Why is open data so important?

When it comes to tackling big, national and international challenges like drowning prevention, no organisation can do it alone. We must work in partnership, with transparency, and encourage others to contribute their expertise and ideas. 

We can only do so much, and to work towards a world where no-one drowns, we must share what we have to help others create lifesaving products and services. In particular, we must share what data we can, within our ethical, moral and legal boundaries, so that others can explore it, identify patterns and develop insights that can contribute to the larger picture. 

We’ve already run a hack in partnership with Geovation to build products (like prototype software, mapping tools and data visualisation) using freely available geospatial data.  

People working at the RNLI hackathon

Photo: RNLI/Will Roberts

People taking part in the GeoHack in September 2017

Making our data open: an experiment

In collaboration with Esri, who specialise in geographic information systems (GIS), we’re experimenting with becoming ‘open by default’, a state where we make data – with the exception of personal or confidential data – available for others to use. This data could help organisations build lifesaving products and services, and increase their understanding of the drowning problem. 

By moving to open by default, we’re lowering the barriers for entering the drowning prevention arena and helping people to use their skills for good.

We could also be opening the doors to ideas which solve wider organisational challenges, such as ways to be more cost-effective or efficient in our operations. We’re under no illusion that we know all the answers. 

You can find out more about this project through our website

Big thanks to RNLI experts Russ Hocken and Matt Wright, and the team at Esri, for helping us to make this happen. The work was actually launched at the Esri conference to over 3,000 GIS professionals.  

Swim Safe programme taking place at Sandown Beach on the Isle of Wight

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Could open data help more parents find our Swim Safe sessions?

What’s next for open data at the RNLI? 

We’ll be keeping an eye on who is using the platform and for what, and monitoring requests for different data sets. And 6 months from now, we’ll share our findings and make some recommendations on what could be done next. 

We’re also looking at some interesting search and rescue-related projects, and how we can be more open and amplify our reach when it comes to fundraising and marketing programmes. For example, how can making data available to others help more supporters find our fundraising events or parents find our Swim Safe sessions?

If you’d like to learn more about open data, get advice and information at the Open Data Institute. Fancy seeing more on how the Ordnance Survey used RNLI data? Here's part 1, part 2 and part 3 of their technical blog series.