Using open data to mobilise outdoor activities, recruit new customers and improve competition across the sector
OpenActive speaks to founder of Our Parks, Born Barikor, about the value of publishing open outdoor activity data. He welcomes improved sector competition to increase participation, explains why it’s time to let go of the PDF document, and shares how open data is enabling his vision for this year.
Could you briefly explain your role at Our Parks, its origin and how it works?
I’m Born Barikor, founder of Our Parks.
Our Parks is an initiative supporting inactive people to get out and be more active in open spaces. We provide free fitness activities with our trained coaches in local outdoor spaces.
It started two years ago when I used to be a personal trainer and worked for a leisure provider. I felt that everyone should have access to high quality exercise regardless of cost or location, and have the opportunity to meet new people in their community.
The idea was to create a platform to allow people to find, book and attend new outdoor classes in the area. We’re trying to drive exercise among people whose barrier to activity is cost, and a reluctance to actually go to a leisure centre.
It’s very much a community development initiative. Waltham forest was the first London borough to join Our Parks. We now operate in 18 of the London boroughs, in 200 locations, and have over 35,000 active users. The majority are aged between 18–45 and 87% female.
Our users are our biggest advocates, they generate and share social content that, encourage new users to participate. We then track their booking activity and report to those that fund the program about the impact the initiative is having on the community. These impacts include monitoring increased exercise class participation, experienced changes in mood, energy levels, sick leave from work and maintained health.
What led you to start taking an open approach to your work?
I believe one of the main reasons we underachieve in sports activity as an industry is because we’re too closed. Gym chains, local leisure centres and private clubs are so closed that you’re unlikely to find what you’re looking for in your local area. When you do find somewhere you may have to phone or physically visit it to book a class.
At the moment many sports clubs rely on publishing sessions on their website and sending a PDF document to companies that will hopefully share it. But PDFs are quickly out of date and there is no efficient way of notifying the person who received the PDF, and everyone they might have shared it with, that the information has been updated.
We recognise this needs to change. Today you can order a product from amazon in a click and it is with you within hours. You should be able to book a class in the same way. At Our Parks we want the technology to work for the customer. By providing our classes as open data for every source that needs to use it, we’re reducing the effort needed to keep this information accessible and up to date.
What data do you publish?
We host an open API (Open Application Programming Interface — a public interface providing means of accessing data, it’s based on an open standard and is often used by developers) which allows us to publish our free classes and make them available to book online. The information feeds directly into websites — such as Get Active London — and our app at real time. We’re making our data available to give the user the quickest way to book using the method they choose.
There are other industries that benefit from using APIs. For example, when booking an airline flight, you might use a booking provider’s website. The airline whose flights are featured on the provider’s website has an open API that allows the provider to list flights. Using this method, you can find the best, cheapest or most convenient flight without spending forever to find it. It works not only for the customer, but for the industry as well because the flight information is available in the right places.
How do you see open data being useful to others in the industry?
As well as publishing open data at Our Parks, we also take an open approach to social content creation, enabling our users to generate and share content, which attracts new users. As a result, we’re a small startup that is having a massive effect across London. We’re putting the work in now so that in the future we’re able to reap the benefits.
If we all start to open our data we’ll reduce the customer drop off rate and broaden our customer base. Analysis of our website visitor activity shows people searching for an activity are likely to book the sessions found within 4 seconds of searching or not book at all, rather than spending longer to find something more suitable. Other reports echo drop offs occur in a matter of seconds. You’re effectively increasing the inactivity rate across London and the UK because when people can’t find activities, other motivations will take precedent.
We can’t focus on inactivity and obesity as a sector without considering the impact of people not being able to find activities. Making it easier for sports clubs and leisure providers to publish their data openly, means more people find activities, and we lower the associated effects of inactivity across the nation.
What are the data challenges in the sport and physical activity sector?
In sport we’re so behind. There are lots of barriers with the word ‘data’. The moment you say ‘I want to open up data’ activity providers start to worry about personal data being stolen and become really protective about it.
There needs to be better understanding that the motivation is not to open up personal information but to open up opportunities. When I sit in meetings to discuss opening data in the sector I can sense a divide in the room between those who are, and aren’t data savvy. Improving data knowledge is really important.
How do you see open data impacting the sport and physical activity sector?
If we change the way we think and shift our focus from competing against each other, to opening out the industry and giving every inactive person the opportunity to find activities, we can engage with a larger population of people who want to use our products and services.
Some might say this will diminish competitiveness. Is this a barrier to going open?
There are lots of potential customers that are inactive. Competition is good! It means that standards increase because you can’t rely on being the loudest.
Relying on the location of your building or visibility online means you may not necessarily be best suited for a user’s needs. Instead, you become reliant on your proximity to bring in customers who already want to get fit and active.
If there is no way of performing on a level playing field, those who are inactive and unaware will always fall into the habit of doing something else. We should be thinking about whether we should be competing against other physical activity providers, or against other sectors.
By convening as a sector we can obtain more of the leisure market and thrive.
What does success look like for Our Parks this year?
This year, we’re aiming for 100,000 people taking part in affordable outdoor exercise across London. We’re currently at 35,000. Open data is going to play a big part in achieving our target.
As a startup still in its infancy with a very small team, we’re able to achieve numbers that a lot of big organisations are unable to with traditional data sharing methods. Hopefully this will show what can be achieved across the sector and at Our Parks when amplified with bigger partnerships and larger organisations.