Creating a Borough of Sport: Merton’s open data powered digital blueprint to help get people active

Nishal Desai
5 min readJun 6, 2024

Like many local authorities, the London Borough of Merton wants to inspire, encourage and support more residents to be more physically active. In fact, a key priority for the council cabinet formed in 2023 is to make Merton London’s first “Borough of Sport”.

Borough of Sport was kicked off by Merton’s Big Sports Day, attended by over 5,000 residents, followed by exemplar projects like Beat the Streets, ParkPlay and Our Parks offering free activities and showing residents that there are many different ways to get active. Additionally, a small grants fund is helping build local capacity and increase the number of free or low cost activities available to residents.

“I will nurture a sense of civic pride from the ground up, cleaner streets, more affordable housing and improving opportunities for everyone to be active in our great sporting borough.”

Cllr Ross Garrod, Leader of Merton Council

Helping more residents to be more active is an ambition shared by many local authorities. However, these local authorities all hit the same awareness challenge when pursuing this ambition: residents just don’t know what opportunities exist, due to a lack of high quality, reliable information about the wide range of what’s on offer. Merton was no exception and discovered the same challenge:

“We conducted extensive consultations with local groups across sport, health, the voluntary sectors and residents. By far the clearest message was that there is so much available in Merton that is high quality, and free or low cost, but no-one knows about it”

David Gentles, Head of Leisure

It was therefore clear to Merton that (a) providers needed support to get their opportunities in front of more residents, and (b) residents needed an easy, modern, trusted way to be able to discover all the great opportunities on their doorstep.

Typically, local authorities tackle this problem by creating a directory of clubs, providers and activities that is manually updated. This is fraught with issues, namely that the directory is out of date within hours, because a dynamic, vibrant sector cannot be represented in a static database.

The result: directories quickly become defunct, untrusted and unused by residents and providers.

Typical lifecycle of a directory of services (image by ChatGPT — please excuse oddities)

A new digital blueprint for physical activity promotion

Created in 2014 by technology experts imin, OpenActive is the Sports sector’s open data initiative for physical activity opportunities. Funded by Sport England, OpenActive’s goal is to set open data standards to make it easy for providers to share live data about their activities, and for other organisations to display that data to help more people get active. By working with London Sport (the local Active Partnership), tech providers imin & Played, and GLL, the borough’s leisure operator, Merton has put OpenActive at the centre of the digital strategy for Borough of Sport, designing a new blueprint for tackling the information challenge:

New Blueprint for physical activity promotion (Adjustment icons created by zero_wing — Flaticon)

This is a step change approach because:

  • Data is “live”, continually updating to reflect what is actually available
  • No manually updated database — data comes directly from providers
  • Providers are incentivised to get involved because their activities are automatically synced with a wide range of physical activity websites & apps as well as Borough of Sport
  • Activities and facilities can be displayed side by side, with live information about spaces available — i.e. exact times, dates and capacity for exercises classes
  • Human-centred filters such as “free”, “weekend” and “outdoors” to help residents narrow their search to find what’s right for them
The Borough of Sport activity finder

The Outcome

The platform has been well received by residents, providers and stakeholders. In the first 6 months, the Borough of Sport activity finder facilitated over 23,000 searches for physical activity made by over 6,000 unique residents — showing that residents are continuing to return to the site to find local opportunities.

imin’s specialist Provider Engagement team worked alongside council officers to deliver effective community provider engagement — facilitating webinars, drop-ins, answering technical questions and reaching out to partners to grow the number of connected providers. In 6 months, imin and Merton together were able to:

  • grow the number of connected providers 4-fold;
  • grow geographic coverage 5-fold; and
  • directly support 50+ new providers to connect their activities on Borough of Sport.

“I have found the activity finder to be useful in seeking out classes for our customers. Uploading our own activities has been a quick and easy process, and it’s simple to pull our activities from the site when they have become full. There’s no risk about who books because new customers are directed towards your usual booking system. It’s a great way to highlight your organisation!” Katie Blacklock, Merton Moves Officer, Wimbledon Guild

By making use of imin’s Data Dashboard tool, Merton has a granular view of the providers that have connected their activities. This enables the team to quickly answer key questions about activity provision in the borough, and what is represented on the Borough of Sport platform. The dashboard is instrumental in minimising geographic gaps on the platform, aiding targeted provider engagement efforts. Additionally, by overlaying ward boundaries, the Merton team can effectively align the provision of free and low-cost activities with the Borough’s physical activity strategy. Over time, the dashboard will be able to inform strategic and tactical investment decisions to ensure that physical activity opportunities are aligned to council priorities.

The Data Dashboard complimenting the activity finder

What’s next

For Merton, this is just the beginning. With these tools at their disposal, the Borough of Sport platform will continue to grow, reaching more residents and supporting more activity providers to find new audiences.

As well as activities, the team plans to extend the Borough of Sport platform to cover community venues, such as parks, schools, community centres, and open spaces. By showing facility and activity information at a venue level, Merton can align the user experience to the place-based focus in the physical activity sector, as well as amplifying Merton’s work in opening school sports facilities, upgrading park facilities and tennis courts, and investing in free bootcamps for residents in Merton’s parks.

By using open data to integrate systems and partners in a sustainable way, Merton’s Borough of Sport is a leading example of how to implement a digital local authority project aimed at getting more people physically active. Rather than building a manually uploaded, static directory from scratch, destined to be shelved through lack of use, Merton matched their ambitious strategy with an innovative approach that will allow them to reap the rewards for years to come.

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Nishal Desai

Attempting to change the world, or at least have fun trying.