Meet Christian Spence, our new Economic Data Lead

Picture of Christian Spence
Christian Spence
Credit: Open Innovations

I'm now into my second full week here at Open Innovations and am settling in nicely, having met almost everyone on our dispersed but collaborative team and am now beginning to meet with some of the sponsors who I'll be working with over the coming months.

The whole ethos behind Open Innovations is a great fit for me. I've worked in the intersection of economics, data and public policy for over a decade, and have often been frustrated by how much data and research is essentially locked in silos, even when it's publicly available. This leads to huge duplication of resources not only across organisations, but within them, and even for individuals who don't have access to the skills or the tools to make their work reproducible. In many places, multiple people work with the same data each month, manually searching, downloading, formatting, visualising and reporting, and important insights often remain buried either within the data or within the research findings which are rarely shared, at least in an easily discoverable and reusable way.

I have often been frustrated by how much data and research is essentially locked in silos, even when it's publicly available.

In previous jobs, I've found this so frustrating that, over the years, I've built a number of tools to help those first few stages along, scraping various data websites to automate the process of data discovery and retrieval, and storing it in a way which means multiple datasets from different providers with different dimensions can all easily talk to one another, as well as the ability to go back to previous work and have it update dynamically with the latest information.

But it's in the final stage, the reporting, that I hope that here at Open Innovations, I can now start to really turn my attention, in both supporting our sponsors and clients to work more openly, but also in publishing more of the tools and research that I've done over the years as well as that planned for the future openly so that as many people as possible can find it, build on top of it and improve it, so that all our jobs become easier.

Projects to come

There's going to be plenty to be watching out for in the economics data workstream at Open Innovations over the coming months.

I'll be getting an alpha-stage launch of my interactive economic data dashboard onto the web, where you can easily search through ONS, NOMIS and other datasets for variables of interest, visualise them, connect them to standardised geography codes and date formats, create easy visualisations with common transformations such as indexing, cumulative changes and deflating, and download charts and the raw data easily. This will help any researchers who regularly analyse the same data routinely but don't have the skills, technical infrastructure or support to be able to automate their research in this way.

I'm also busy looking in more detail some key levelling up metrics, particularly at the difference between income and economic activity at small geographies to help better understand what we mean when we talk about rich and poor places across the country. I'm also going to revisit some older work on different local taxation models to explore how devolution of a range of taxes could better support local areas.

The ONS has been working hard since the Bean Review on improving statistics at small geographies, and that's where much of my recent research has been focused. I'll be looking again town centre boundaries, flows of money and earnings between cities and outlying towns and publishing some updated versions of my previous research on mobility and its effects on high street footfall and viability.

I'll keep updating my machine-readable ONS data repos on GitHub (regional GVA, GFCF, GDHI), as these have proved popular; even with the improvements in ONS data availability, some datasets are still spread across multiple Excel worksheets with merged cell headers (though I've written some code to fix those), and I'll fold these datasets into the data dashboard as they get cleaned.

New pan-Northern data user group

Finally, staying firm to our principles of open and collaborative work, we're going to launch a pan-Northern quarterly economic data user group to include technical show and tells, alongside an opportunity to share best practice and to discuss the broader challenges of the economy of the north. The first of these will be in the first week in December, so keep an eye out for the date, and contact me if you'd like to be part of it.

Get in touch! It's more fun when we share

It's going to be a busy quarter through to Christmas, but I'm looking forward to the challenge. As always, if you want to collaborate, or just catch-up over a coffee, drop me a line.