Councils and the data revolution: 7 ways local authorities can get more value from their data

thumbnail.jpgBy Tom Symons, NESTA, July 15, 2016
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Many parts of the private sector have undergone a data revolution. Data analytics now influences the personalised ads and product recommendations we see on websites, the satellite navigations in our cars and on our smart phones, the news content we see on social media and even the creation of new TV programmes, such as Netflix’s House of Cards.

But what does the data revolution mean for councils and local public services? Nesta’s Local Datavores research programme aims to answer this question. Where, how and to what extent can better data use help councils to achieve their strategic objectives? The first output from this research is a discussion paper that reflects a period of preliminary research conducted in the spring of 2016 about how the use of data is changing local government. We were pleased to work with SAP to produce this work.

In this report we set out some of the emerging trends in how councils are using data, and seven things councils can do to get more value from the data they hold.

Why look at how councils use data?

Local authorities sit in the middle of a web of information. Everything from social care for vulnerable children, waste collection, procurement, council tax collection to planning applications produces huge quantities of data. This data is sometimes garbled, hard to analyse or personal and sensitive. But it is potentially hugely beneficial in helping councils make services more targeted and effective, to allocate resources to where they will have the biggest impact, to save officer time in front and back office processes, and to provide insight into the causes of, and solutions to, costly social problems.

Running a city or a local authority is to a great extent about managing and responding to information. Increasing digitisation of services, the use of sensors and other forms of data collection mean that there are emerging data sets which capture the wide variety of activities performed by councils. And while big data presents opportunities for local councils, there are equally important opportunities presented by smaller data sets already available to councils. Whether the data sets are big or small, there are major benefits to be had from using them more intelligently, sharing them more widely and making them more open.

In our research, we saw a number of emerging trends in how councils are using data.

Predictive government - governments are using data analytics to predict events from potential child abuse in New Zealand and the US, to the likeliest locations for house fires and the school children most at risk of not completing their education. These insights equip local governments with more ability to take a preventative approach, putting in place interventions to try and avert problems rather than providing costly services in response.

Data warehousing - through data warehousing, councils such as Manchester are combining data sets from across local government and the wider local public sector to enable deeper population level analysis, and to provide frontline professionals with a much more comprehensive picture of people receiving services. Such datasets can be enablers of the historically challenging objective of partnership working across public services.

Smart places - in some councils, such as Bristol, Glasgow and Milton Keynes, the combination of sensors, Internet of Things technologies and data are improving traffic management, tracking air pollution and making more efficient use of infrastructure such as street lights. These councils are also starting to take a citizen-centric approach to smart cities, collecting data from citizens to better understand how councils can use their resources in a way which reflects the ways in which people navigate and experience places.

Geo-spatial analytics - councils have made considerable use of geo-spatial data to improve services, such as optimising waste collection routes and reduce inefficiency and duplication in transactional services. This is one of the most established areas of data analytics in local government, with studies finding a cost-benefit ratio of a £4 return for every £1 spent on the use of geo-spatial data.

Open data - through open data portals and analytics hubs, councils are becoming more transparent and better engaged with their residents and communities. Such communities include developers, entrepreneurs and innovators who are able to use open data to create businesses, products and services, such as apps like Citymapper or the startup firm Spend Network. Alongside finding solutions for public or social problems, this is an important source of local economic growth.

7 things councils can do to get more from their data

Through our research, we identified a number of success factors for better data use. These are summarised below as seven things councils could do to get more value from their data.

  1. Take a problem-oriented mindset to working with data – data is not in and of itself useful, but using data analysis to test hypotheses or solve problems can ensure that value is created.
  2. Integrate data into a data warehouse to enable deeper analysis and use – linking together data creates a fuller view of issues or individuals, making problem solving or pattern spotting easier.
  3. Enable data sharing through use case oriented information governance protocols – being specific about the circumstances and purposes for which data can be shared makes it easier to unlock data and integrate it.
  4. Support the use of data from the top – senior managers and politicians can create a data-oriented culture through asking for data and analysis as part of decision and policy making processes.
  5. Invest in the data science capacity needed to perform analysis and integrate large data sets – data work increasingly requires data scientists and programmers who are currently rare in the local government workforce. Successful projects require investment in these skill-sets, either from inside or outside the organisation.
  6. Take an agile approach to working with data - rapid prototyping, testing and iteration improves the quality of analysis and tools, and helps build momentum.
  7. Ensure that hard and soft infrastructure enables integration of data and analysis – without high speed broadband, data storage options and the right software, data approaches can be held back.

We have recently been undertaking in-depth case study research to gain a more detailed insight into ways data and analytics can help councils deliver services that are more personalised, efficient and effective. We have seen some groundbreaking approaches in this work - across children’s services, adult social care and health integration, and smart places - and will be publishing this in early autumn 2016.

In our Innovation Lab, we are working on a practical programme to support the development of Offices of Data Analytics. This will use insights gathered from this programme alongside specialist technical expertise to solve common problems faced by councils with data. Through this research and the ODA programme we also aim to develop practical tools to help councils get more from their data, including a compendium of use cases and a data maturity framework.

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