This morning I attended the launch of a new open-access web tool that lets you analyse and compare towns in Scotland. It is easy to use and has great potential. Understanding Scottish Places (USP) is designed for use by both professionals and citizens. it covers the 479 places in Scotland with populations of 1000 or more, and has data on demography, education and health, employment and retail provision. It also provides measures of how far a town is self-sufficient, inter-dependent with other towns for jobs and services, or dependent on accessing such things from elsewhere.
Case studies and DIY
As well as the data sets the project is developing more in-depth case studies of towns. Click on “USP Audit” to see these. They include, for example, analyses of retail facitlites in the town centre, the evening economy and policy interventions such as the work of Business Improvement Districts. So far three case studies have been posted, with another on the way, and there is clear potential to grow this aspect of the website.
Further, the site includes a manual that talks users through how to do a health check on their chosen town by sing key performance indicators. There is an Excel template that can be downloaded and used for this purpose.
A base to build upon
Two things strike me about USP. First, it really IS easy to use. I have often come across on-line tools in the past that frustrate rather than illuminate, and/or provide you with a lot of data which is out of date or at the wrong spatial level for my purposes. USP scores highly on both these points. The information is presented concisely and clearly, and though the census data used will soon begin to age, it is easy to access and manipulate.
Second, I think the town level is a useful one to work at. Yes, you can say it blurs the functional urban region, though the ability to analyse interdependence lets you probe that, albeit through a more circuitous route. But towns still matter to “normal” people,and the ability to compare one town with another will be something that should interest a wide range of stakeholders such as civic groups or retailers, to pluck out just two examples.
To me the next step would be to add a property data level. Housing is of obvious importance and interest, but so are things like conservation areas, listed buildings and buildings at risk. The historic built enviroment is such a key feature of Scotland’s places, and needs to be central to place-based policy-making.
We are living through a data explosion on a scale that was unimaginable just a few years ago. The key question for planners and economic development professionals is how we use and communicate the information. USP is a major step forward in making place information easily manipulable online for professionals and non-professionals to use. Try it out for yourself and see.
The project was funded by the Scottish Government and by the Carnegie UK Trust. The Centre for Local Economic Strategies and Scotland’s Towns Partnership along with the University of Stirling have been partners in the work.