By Mark Horncastle, PA public services expert, Peter Bull, PA strategy and customer analytics expert and Charlie Henderson, PA performance improvement expert
Until recently, the data generated by our everyday interactions with public organisations has only been used to fulfil the immediate transaction – to allow us to pay our council tax online or to register with a local GP, for example. The cost of storing, cleaning and integrating this data with other sources has been a barrier to exploiting it to achieve more ambitious goals.
Now, however, new technologies are opening up new possibilities. If coal, gas and oil were the natural resources that powered industry and government over the last two centuries, then data and the insight it brings can be turned into a new and incredibly valuable resource for the 21st century.
Insight from big data can support the drive to make public services more efficient, while its commercial value has the potential to provide public organisations with new and much needed revenue. The new technologies that are helping the public sector use data in new ways are grouped around three key concepts: cloud-based solutions, rapid development techniques and better ways of visualising data.
Cloud-based solutions: Cloud-based tools such as Google BigQuery allow organisations to discover the value of data before investing in its analysis. Once the value in the data has been proven, advances in processing and analytical tools enable organisations to develop the capability to deal with large amounts of information relatively cheaply.
The new processing power offered by cloud-based technologies lies behind an award-winning tool developed by PA for the Met Office. The Weather Observations Website (WOW) is a cloud-based platform that allows enthusiasts around the world to submit live data about the weather in their area to the site. This is producing rich data to support weather prediction and improve the Met Office’s forecasting accuracy. At the last count, WOW had received 150 million observations.
Rapid development techniques: If massive processing power is opening up new opportunities for extracting value from data, then rapid development techniques are helping organisations to take advantage of these opportunities more quickly than ever before. Rapid development techniques allow system developers to work directly with end users on live solutions, adapting and refining tools on the spot, to cut development times dramatically.
For example, PA used rapid development techniques to develop an award-winning system for NHS England. The system uses big data to build an accurate picture of how care providers across the country are performing. This tool has made it easier for the NHS to monitor performance and spot worrying trends, such as high mortality rates, much sooner.
Better ways of visualising data: To yield real value, data needs to be presented in a way that informs and improves decision-making. Some visualisation technologies can now bring thousands of data points on to one sheet, improving organisations’ ability to assess trends and bringing the insight from the data into clear focus.
PA has exploited advances in visualisation technology to develop a tool that gives NHS advisors a much clearer view of how prescription rates for different drugs vary among clinical commissioning groups. Before, it would have taken advisers weeks to assemble and understand the data. Now, new visualisation technology highlights variances in a matter of minutes, pointing advisers to areas for fruitful investigation.
Fuelling a revolution
The facility to understand where to target resources for maximum impact; the ability to spot class-leading performance (and copy it in new locations); the power to pick up on emerging trends and plan an efficient response; the means to measure and compare the outcome of different strategies – all these benefits and others flow from our ability to extract additional value from existing data. These new capabilities hold real promise for a public sector striving to deliver the best services possible with limited resources. By using innovative technologies and techniques, data has the potential to bring about a transformation in the quality of public services and the lives of citizens.