OpenActive: addressing inactivity in the UK (case study)

Wed Dec 18, 2019
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Supported by Sport England, OpenActive addresses the problem of inactivity in the UK by helping people get active using open data


OpenActive is a community-led initiative, launched in 2016, with the ambition to address the problem of inactivity in the UK by helping people get active using open data. The initiative is stewarded by the Open Data Institute, supported by Sport England, and formed by organisations and engaged individuals working within the sport and physical activity sector.

It aims to help the 17.7 million (39.4%) adults in England who don’t exercise enough to easily discover and take part in suitable activities. Together, the sector is improving access to opportunity data, stimulating innovation with data to meet people’s digital expectations, developing open standards, building data literacy, and working collaboratively to evoke change across the sector.

OpenActive is an example of a sector change programme: we are working with organisations to tackle a sector-level social problem with data, using an open approach. The aim of our sector programmes is to create impact both through addressing the problem and by embedding good data practices and business models. OpenActive also links in to the ODI theory of change, which encourages those who steward data to act in ways that lead to the best social and economic outcomes for everyone.

Key facts and figures

  • OpenActive was established in 2016, and is supported by Sport England
  • It aims to help the 17.7 million (39.4%) adults in England who don’t exercise enough to easily discover and take part in suitable activities
  • 683 activity types listed, from abseiling to zumba
  • 233,912 open opportunity data sessions (snapshot in December 2019): a session is an opportunity described by its name, URL, date, activity type and location
  • 98 community members associated with the initiative and listed on the OpenActive website
  • 10 startups directly supported by the OpenActive Accelerator
  • 50 datasets published

An external assessment of OpenActive estimates:

  • up to £3 million per year in health costs avoided
  • up to a £20 million per year increase in productivity
  • the avoidance of up to 100 premature deaths per year

What was the ODI’s role?

As the steward of OpenActive, the ODI coordinates the development of the data standards, grows the community and helps organisations publish and use open opportunity data.

The ODI is supported by Sport England, which funds OpenActive with National Lottery funding.

Together, we work with a community of organisations and engaged individuals working in the sector, from leisure operators and local sports clubs to national governing bodies and event providers. We also work with government bodies like Public Health England and its campaign Change4Life, and Ordnance Survey and its GetOutside campaign.

When OpenActive was set up in 2016, the ODI had one full-time employee and one full-time contractor dedicated to the project – others worked on it alongside other work. Over the course of the last 18 months, the ODI has employed a dedicated team to support technical standards development, technical consultancy, advocacy, communications, engagement and programme management.

Advocacy and lobbying

Part of the ODI’s approach to encouraging better activity coverage nationwide has been to lobby and advocate for organisations to open data.

OpenActive aims to embed culture change in the physical activity sector, which had not done much work in the ‘open’ space previously. To make that change happen, we had to work hard on communicating the benefits of this approach over other approaches. We had to set out the vision and concept in a straightforward way, so that activity providers could understand how open data could help them reach new customers.

It has also meant working hard to identify the best levers to pull on to influence different organisations. These levers include encouraging peers to influence each other (for example booking system providers supporting publication as open data because their competitors are doing so), or pressure from customers (for example physical activity providers influencing the providers of the booking systems they use through mass customer demand).

One of the most effective ways to encourage gyms and activity providers to publish open data is to create a really compelling incentive for them where that data is used. For example, Public Health England’s Change4Life campaign now uses open data in its activity finder, launched just before the summer holidays in 2019. For many leisure operators, having their activities listed on Change4Life has huge appeal; this has been a catalyst for them in opening up their data.

Unlocking booking systems

Although many booking systems bought into the idea of OpenActive quite quickly, they also often have long lists of competing priorities that they need to manage. National campaigns have played an important role in helping booking systems prioritise this work over other activities in their backlog. Similarly, the fact that local authorities include OpenActive requirements in their contracts with leisure operators gives booking systems a clear steer that OpenActive is now a priority for them.

What was challenging?

We underestimated the time it would take to create impact. There are several stages to running a successful project that require organisations to think and behave differently – that is, to embed culture change. Initially, we thought this would be a two-year project, but found that more time was needed to understand the problem, find early adopters and communicate what works in a way that wasn’t too data-focused, so more people would understand the benefits of sharing data.

Building a community of competitors is difficult but articulating a common challenge helps. OpenActive brings together lots of different organisations, each with slightly different interests and aspirations. Forging consensus on something can be challenging, be it for technical specification or on the strategic direction of the programme. Yet there is a common underlying interest that all the organisations in the community share – tackling inactivity.

For future projects, we should undertake more comprehensive sector-level research to establish the current levels of data literacy and attitudes to open data, to allow us to realistically scope and plan sector programmes. It is also important that we tailor language, both verbal and written, to resonate and be accessible to the particular sector we are dealing with, to give us the best chance of early and effective engagement.

What went well?

Employing a dedicated team with specific roles enabled the momentum to grow. Having a dedicated team, with very clear roles are areas of responsibility, meant that they had the headspace to nurture relationships, understand the network and be responsive.

Communicating strategic objectives. We learned through OpenActive that for projects with multiple stakeholders and partners, being clear about strategic objectives from the outset is crucial. It is also important to be open to feedback and questions, to help foster authentic engagement.

Getting the support of senior people at partner and collaborating organisations worked well to keep them informed and enthusiastic. The ODI approached senior colleagues at Legend Management System and Gladstone (two of the largest leisure management systems) to join the OpenActive advisory board, which helped them keep on top of progress and feel invested in the programme.

For future projects, we should:

  • recruit thoughtfully, researching the skill sets required for a successful team to work together. As well as project management, we should consider technical and communications support required from the outset, and look at the most practical methods of recruitment (employees, suppliers or contractors) to meet the needs.
  • communicate top-level strategic objectives to all stakeholders as early as possible, ensuring there are effective feedback methods.
  • get senior buy-in from partner and collaborating organisations from the outset, to help ensure investment (strategic and financial) in the ongoing programme).

What has the ODI learned about how to create impact?

We have learned about proving the impact of an open data approach. Digital transformation is happening everywhere, but this project has revealed how risky it can be without baking ‘open’ into it. In this case, sports providers that outsource booking systems to startups and other companies risk losing control over the relationship with their customers, by introducing the ‘middle man’ to manage the data. By making the data open for anyone to access, use and share, OpenActive allows data providers to have more control over what customers see.

Connecting up with similar strategies or policy issues is useful. More impact could have been made if OpenActive had been more integrated into surrounding campaigns to get people active, such as the UK government loneliness strategy. These can help to increase public awareness and prove the importance of the project, which can in turn draw in more funding.

Setting the scene for sector programmes. The ODI’s experience with OpenActive provides valuable lessons for sector change programme. This includes: comprehensive horizon scanning at the outset; good communication of strategic goals and user benefits; senior buy-in from data providers and startups; and linking in with other relevant campaigns which can act as an amplifier and help build trust.