Data is often misunderstood as a technical subject reserved to experts but data is actually the hidden layer that facilitates our daily lives in the city. Data is the unseen fuel that powers services that help you find a holiday, book a taxi, pay your taxes online, share a car or simply send a letter. When new sources of data are created and opened, the potential is to create new services, improve our cities’ sustainability and quality of life.

Nick Christian is an active member in his local community in Brixton, London. Below he tells us about the local sharing economy, which is gaining momentum from Brixton to Bridgeton.

Last week, like a grown-up, I decided to finally hang a picture that’s been sitting around since I moved into my flat a year ago. For that I needed a power drill, only I’m not really a grown-up so I don’t have one. Nor could I think of anyone who might be able lend me one. But then Neil lent me a power drill.

Peer-to-peer sharing

Until he opened the door of his home, a mere sixteen minutes’ walk from my own, I had never met or spoken to Neil before. We don’t work together and as far as I’m aware we have no friend in common. Yet thanks to the internet, I was able to contact him, inform him of my picture-hanging problem, find out that he was able to solve it and borrow the drill. I’ll give it back tomorrow. It didn’t cost me a thing, but this is the sharing economy.

Join the sharing economy

Although the term can be a bit misleading, perhaps implying that money isn’t involved, when often it is, ‘the sharing economy’ is a catchall for a new but not really new area of economic activity centred on the idea of access over ownership. At its simplest: if you own something but don’t use it all the time, you can make it available to others; if you need something, but don’t necessarily want to own it, you can find someone who may be prepared to supply it, for a short time, for free or a nominal fee. Basically: more stuff being used more often, by more people.

Access over ownership

As with so much in our lives these days, it is the internet that has made this possible, and an abundance of sites have emerged in just the last couple of years, all with the purpose of connecting short term buyers and sellers. While London can often feel like a metropolis of millions in which we barely nod at even our closest neighbours, sharing sites provide a practical way of breaking down those barriers.

As Neil pointed out to me when I borrowed his drill, those who live in Brixton are “a practical bunch”; “many if not most of my neighbours probably have a tool or two that they may not use that often but that they’d happily lend out. The problem is knowing who has what and which doors to knock on.”

Sharing websites solve this by knocking on everyone’s doors, albeit virtually. All you do is tell the site what you’re after and allow its algorithm do the legwork. Once it has your location it emails everyone it considers local to you and asks them directly if they can fulfil your request. If they can they accept and allow you to arrange the pickup; if they don’t have what you need they simply press a button saying so and no offence is given or taken. Amongst other things I have received requests for a camera, a longboard, a bicycle and a basketball. The last of these even included an invitation to play an actual game of basketball, but sadly my slam-dunk days are over.

Knowing your neighbours

Breaking down those barriers and knowing our neighbours slightly better increases our connections at a local level. A close-knit community, Brixton’s residents may be better connected than those in many other parts of London but as the area changes we may well benefit from the sort of assistance that sharing sites can provide. These sites can help newcomers establish themselves more easily and build the kind of bonds that are crucial at the local level. Such sites can be of real value in helping make your neighbourhood less anonymous.

Although somewhat reliant on take-up – it is not much good if you have to traipse several miles to collect a floor-sander – the sharing economy could thrive at the local level and be a massive benefit in Brixton, and beyond. It expanded my neighbourhood, for the better. And isn’t that what it’s all about?

What does it have to do with data?

At OPEN Glasgow, we were excited to hear Nick’s story. It illustrates how data and technology have the potential to improve communities. Neil shared the fact that he owns a drill that he doesn’t mind lending, that’s data. Nick shared the fact that he needs a drill, that’s also data. They shared their locations; this is also data. The sharing site is the conduit that links those pieces of data to create value for the community.

Strengthening communities

The benefits of sharing aren’t simply financial and ecological. Sharing resources also strengthens communities. It’s one of the ways in which data and technology can improve the quality of life, economic opportunities while reducing the environmental footprint of the city.

Does Nick’s story inspire you to share something you have? Borrow something you need? Glasgow has a few sharing websites such as freeshare.