Public Services > Local Government

Public sector users get to grips with city data analytics

David Bicknell Published 24 May 2017

Nesta event attracts wide range of organisations keen to understand issues, including the governance, leadership and platforms around creating local offices of data analytics


Essex Police, Worcestershire County Council, Humberside Fire and Rescue Service, Greater Manchester Combined Authority and the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham are just a few of the public sector organisations that discussed city data analytics at a recent Nesta event.

The event, which attracted 190 attendees for the morning conference and 90 for afternoon workshops, also attracted a string of other London boroughs, Whitehall departments and luminaries such as Camden Council’s cabinet member for finance, technology and growth, Theo Blackwell, former government data director Paul Maltby and head of ICT at the London Borough of Enfield, Nadira Hussain.

A string of other London boroughs – Bexley, Brent, Ealing, Hackney, Hounslow, Lambeth, among others – also attended, as well as Future Cities Catapult, and suppliers such as Huawei, Siemens, and Amazon Web Services.

Among the event’s speakers, Dr Vicki Harrington, director of strategic change and performance at Essex Police discussed adopting a ‘place based approach” to data analytics in Essex, with the setting up of a data analytics centre to help prevent crime in the county. Also present was Richard Walker, senior manager for public sector advisory at KPMG, who discussed Worcestershire creating an office of data analytics, which was a topic also discussed by Jason Kirby, the area manager of the Humberside Fire and Rescue Service.

The service has been working with Humberside Police in discussing improved data sharing and talked at the event of the issues behind creating a pilot Humber Office of Data Analytics which would provide data sharing guidance and support.

Later, Pye Nyunt, corporate insight hub manager for the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, examined how analytical data can help understand gambling related harm and what to do about it and Phil Swan, chief information officer at Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) discussed the data issues around vulnerable children.

The event emphasised some key principles about data best practice that Nesta is currently working on and which will be published later this summer.

At the heart perhaps, is that information based on data can be applied towards two primary goals. Firstly, it drives the making of better decisions by promoting greater understanding and awareness about an issue, and secondly, it enables better actions by using the data to increase the effectiveness of services and interventions.

Nesta’s four principles are that:

  • Data is useful to the extent that it leads to action. The principle cites the example of the physician John Snow, who in 1854 plotted the location of deaths in London’s Soho district to show that a cholera outbreak was caused by the contamination of a water pump. The map he created was an early example of data visualisation that led authorities to act in a way that was counter to conventional wisdom at the time. They removed the pump handle, saving many hundreds of lives.
  • The primary consumers of public sector data should be the public sector itself. Nesta argues that many governments' forays into data have focused on open data i.e. publishing datasets freely for others to use. This it argues, has resulted in some benefits, but Nesta believes the focus has been in the wrong place for two reasons. If an organisation is not using its own data, then the quality of the data it publishes externally is likely to be poor. And given that smarter use of data is proven route to making services more effective and better, it is a missed opportunity if organisations publish their data only in the hope that others will use it. It is better to use your own data and invest in its timeliness and quality. Then link that data up across the different parts of your organisation to improve your own operations and potentially save money.
  • Data delivers the most value when it is shared. The scale of the financial challenges facing the public sector is such that it’s not sufficient for individual organisations to become as efficient as they can be. They actually need to find ways to collaborate with data to address issues at a larger scale. The issue is that public sector data resembles a jigsaw that’s never been put together - every team and organisation has their own piece of the puzzle, but no one can see the whole picture.
  • Making smarter use of data is not primarily a challenge of having the right technology but of having the right culture skills and leadership. Public sector leaders need to establish a culture in which it isn’t acceptable to make decisions without data and evidence to back them up. That means data analysts need time free from their current roles of reporting on KPIs to use their skills for genuine data science and data teams also need access to leadership each week.

In his presentation, Humberside Fire and Rescue’s Kirby revealed that key issues that emerged from the joint data sharing project concerned the sharing of data, turning data into knowledge, resources and governance. In terms of sharing data, Kirby cited the impact of complex meeting structures, consistency of referral processes, and assumptions and bias.

When it comes to resourcing, problems can come from multiple, complex and unlinked systems, and duplication of data.  When turning data into knowledge, the challenges are reduced investment, increasing dependency, and a need for in-house skills in areas such as predictive analytics. On governance, the hurdles are understanding and acting on complex legislation and a tendency to adopt a risk-averse stance.

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