Blog: The Great City Food Digital Treasure Hunt

As part of launching Digital Leaders Week in Birmingham the City Council, West Midlands Innovation Alliance and the West Midlands Academic Science Network co-hosted the Great City Food Digital Treasure Hunt.

With a packed room of data specialists, analysts, retailers, community organisations, activists and academics we spent a fun, and at times challenging, morning hunting down a picture of the city of Birmingham in food.

For those of you not familiar with Birmingham, here are some key facts that might give a sense of the scale of the challenge:

  • Birmingham is England’s second city with almost 1.2 million residents, and is the largest unitary authority in Western Europe.
  • Birmingham is one of the most diverse cities in Europe, just under 47% identify with a non-White British ethnic identity, and one of the youngest with just under 40% of the population under 25yrs old.
  • There is a 10yr life expectancy gap within the city boundaries for male life expectancy and an 8yr gap for women, between those living in the poorest ward and the richest.
  • Birmingham is one of the greenest cities in Europe and is rumoured to have more canals than Venice!

The City faces significant health challenges including high levels of infant mortality, coronary heart disease and cancer. Amongst these challenges over 40% of our 10 and 11yr olds are carrying excess weight and over 65% of adults.

The challenge of obesity and excess weight is complex and in a City of this scale we have to focus on getting upstream of the challenge and changing the food environment that citizens live in rather than perhaps focusing on ‘bailing out the bucket’ weight management solutions. If we don’t change the city that our citizens live in to make healthy eating and physical activity easy, cheaper and more efficient than the obesity creating choices then we won’t turn this picture around and we are destined to see generations of obese children become obese adults raising further generations of obese children.

As we have been trying to develop our approach to the food environment we have repeatedly come up against the issue of a lack of metrics for food at a place or citizen level for the City. We have some data but it is relatively blunt and only at a city level, this includes:

  • Average number of portions of fruit and average number of portions of vegetables consumed by adults (17/18 data)
  • 2014/15 data on average number of portions of fruit and portions of vegetables eat by 15yr olds (this data set has been discontinued)
  • Density of fast food outlets (2014 data)

So when the opportunity arose to set a digital challenge, what better than to set a digital treasure hunt to find out the food picture of Birmingham.

The challenge was set in the context of finding data on food production, food retail (including advertising), food consumption and food waste.

Through the morning participants reflected on data they knew existed and whether it was publicly accessible or paid access only or restricted, and data they wanted to know.

What was interesting was the breadth of discussion and where these conversations led. Some of the highlights for me included the recognition of the wealth of data held by environmental health within the Council itself, especially on food production as well as out of home retail, the potential for waste data to be a new pivot point for the conversation about food with citizens and the wide variety of digital interface points around food waste reduction as well as take aways.

There were really great conversations about the role of supermarkets and the paucity of data sharing between private and public sector, and we were really grateful to have Sainsburys in the room to share their wisdom and knowledge about this, as well as international academics from Australia who shared some of the global learning about trying to bridge this divide.

As a methodology it was fast paced and interactive, there were some things that worked well like having mixed groups and rotating findings between groups so that others could build on and evolve thinking, and others that perhaps could be strengthened in future – like making sure everyone brought their laptop as finding data on a phone can be a bit challenging – especially if it’s an excel spreadsheet!!!

Bringing together people around a digital treasure hunt was a different approach to digital leadership that built new connections and relationships but perhaps most powerfully helped move forward the thinking on the art of the possible if we all move one step closer to each other when it comes to sharing data and increasing data transparency at a population level.

Building on the energy from the treasure hunt we took forward the feedback Some and findings into a round-table today with the partners to focus on how we move this forward….so watch this space!

 (Author: Justin Varney, Director of Public Health, Birmingham City Council)