The West Midlands Regional Observatory produces research, facts and
figures about the West Midlands. Its aim is to deliver facts alongside an objective assessment of what they mean, helping decision makers take policy decisions with a sense of confidence about the future. The Observatory believes better evidence will lead to better policy, strategy and funding in the West Midlands so that services and ultimately people’s lives are improved.
The Observatory is directed by a Partnership Board that draws representation from across the public, private and voluntary sectors. Having a diverse board ensures its research links effectively to the needs of policy makers in the West Midlands.
Getting started with data presentation
We spoke to Gavin Wray, digital communications executive, to find out more about how InstantAtlas is being used to present data. Gavin explains that the Observatory first came across InstantAtlas over four years ago. The team was working on a project to help local authorities in gathering data for their Local Area Agreements. They wanted to present the results in such a way that users could choose one indicator, a geographical area and then be able to view the relevant data set.
The Observatory’s research assistant maintains the maps and has helped other colleagues to make use of them. Gavin believes that one advantage of InstantAtlas is that once the template is set up it is very straightforward to add new data sets. This saves time that would have otherwise have been spent inputting data.
“It took a little time and effort,” he says. “However, we were really happy with the results. From then on we started to make use of InstantAtlas in other areas of our work.” One of these projects is the annual State of the West Midlands report.
Meeting the need
The Observatory started producing the State of the West Midlands report in 2004 and originally used Microsoft Word documents with Microsoft Excel charts dropped in. Once the team started using InstantAtlas for its Local Area Agreement work it realised InstantAtlas could also be used to present data that was collected for the annual report. This now means that users can look at data (such as number of business start-ups, employment and economic performance) and make comparisons over time.
Gavin says that it has been very important to have a data presentation tool that can be used by individuals without much GIS experience. “It’s easy to explore and get data out of it without any technical expertise,” he says.
An interactive map produced by the Observatory has been featured in The Guardian’s top 10 government data visualisations and applications. The map shows the proportion of the working age population claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance in each local authority in the West Midlands. It is also possible to compare data for each local authority with the West Midlands and UK averages.
Another example where InstantAtlas is being used is the Place Survey, which shows what residents think of the services provided by their local authority:
The Observatory’s research and data is accessed by a wide range of individuals from senior policy makers through to researchers in local government departments. The Observatory carries out an annual satisfaction survey amongst its users and its work is given a quality rating. The results so far have been very encouraging.
In the Observatory’s 2009 annual customer survey, 40 per cent of respondents said that they had used the InstantAtlas maps on its website (www.wmro.org). Respondents gave a rating of 3.1 on a scale of 1 to 4 (1=low, 4=high) for both importance of and satisfaction with the maps.
The Observatory is planning to use InstantAtlas in other ways and recognition by The Guardian has helped to raise the profile of the reports. However, the unit’s future is in doubt following the government’s announcement that regional development agencies are to be abolished.
– less time is spent inputting data now InstantAtlas templates have been set up
– data presentation has helped the Observatory give greater access to non-GIS professionals
– users have given positive feedback of their experience of using the interactive reports