Open data to tackle loneliness

The government recently published a loneliness strategy, asking how support could be provided for people in “society as it is now”. In other words, in a society in which people travel further for work, but shop online and make use of social media.

How could open data support its aims? What data would be useful, where would we find it, and is just sharing that data enough?

What data would be useful?

For gauging the scale of the problem, measures of loneliness, including social media analysis of words that might indicate loneliness, would be useful (although consent and bias are likely to be major challenges). Spatial data, such as distance from services, might be a useful indicator (with the caveat that some people who live in isolated places, including rural areas, will have chosen to do so and not feel lonely).

Other categories of data that might be useful include: information on charities dedicated to loneliness; information that could be used to ‘keep track’ of people and reach out to them; and data-sets that identify reasons why people might be reluctant to go out; crime survey data, information about hills and inclines that make facilities inaccessible.

For lonely people, information on where people gather would be useful: pubs, ping-pong clubs, ParkRun, libraries. However, people may experience loneliness at particular times in their lives. The government itself identifies life events such as losing a job, or having children, or divorce, or moving into a care home as potential triggers for loneliness; so life-point specific information might be useful.

As would data that families or carers might be able to use on someone’s behalf. As would the ability to enhance data-sets (people don’t just want to know that there is a cafe in town, they want to know whether it does “a nice cup of tea”. Alongside all that, data on how to get to places: transport data).

Where do we find it, and what are the challenges?

A big challenge to collecting information for potentially lonely people is having data described consistently (a new mum might be interested in an ante-natal class, but local councils, the NHS and others describe such classes differently). In the US, there is a move to create a standard for describing ‘services’ that would enable people to find services for, say, babies or young children without having to search for specific keywords.

Another challenge is to get this information to people. Curating information sources is not enough: nobody who is lonely is going to look for a csv file. Publishing on a website is also unlikely to do the job: some people are not online, and not everybody has good search skills.

Additional strategies, such as Facebook posts will be needed. Local radio can be an effective vehicle. Bus-side advertising works. Open data might also learn from the approach of charities, pubs and clubs that sticker public spaces, including lamp-posts.

Spaces such as GP surgeries can be useful for publicising services and events; and there is official encouragement for the social prescribing movement, which encourages GPs to ‘prescribe’ non-clinical, social activity, so it will be worth tapping into that. Although, again, age and location-specific strategies will be needed.

Data for thought

As a final thought… “are we being reactive, rather than preventative?” What would open data to prevent loneliness, rather than map and respond to it, look like? Questions for the comments section… and the next Open Data Camp, perhaps… But in the meantime, the session notes are here!

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