Our interactions with councils are increasingly conducted online and every one of those contacts generates new data about the person using the service. In addition, as more and more public services go ‘digital-by-default’, public bodies will have access to greater amounts of raw data about our lives, service choices and even personal habits.
In the retail world, organisations would mine this data to tailor services to individual users, drive new demand and nudge us towards new behaviour.
For local authorities, data can be used to improve service efficiency, prioritise effectively and enhance individual user choice. Up until now, however, the costs of hosting, structuring and accessing raw data – let alone refining and analysing it – means town halls are missing opportunities to improve what they do.
As a result, most tend to just skim the surface of the data immediately to hand. Local authorities in Enfield and Basildon, for example, dropped pilot schemes to open their receptions on evenings and weekends when customer data illustrated it increased, rather than re-distributed, demand. Deeper analysis would have enabled them to see which public buildings customers visit most. This would have allowed them to start delivering targeted public services out of libraries, community centres and schools.
The good news is that a number of new processing and analytical tools can enable local authorities to deal with large amounts of information relatively cheaply. They can also now benefit from cloud-based solutions that allow them to discover the value of data before they invest in analysis.
These solutions are already in use elsewhere in the public sector: NHS England has developed a cloud-based intelligence tool that uses big data to build an accurate picture of how care providers across the country are performing. This has made it easier to monitor performance and spot worrying trends, such as high mortality rates.
The insights these tools will provide can support the drive to make public services more efficient and can generate commercial value to create new and much needed revenue. For example, just as the Land Registry sells data – including information on house prices – to individuals and businesses, local authorities can realise value from the information they hold on localised boundaries and property title changes.
Similarly, data pooling and shared access could be used to identify and address service issues. Accident and Emergency (A&E) patient data, for example, might indicate a rise in trips and fall injuries focused on a town centre street.
Analysis of this data may be of little use to the A&E itself, but if traded with the local highways authority – perhaps in exchange for forward planning information about works that might increase A&E demand – the public bodies could both benefit. New technologies also make it easier to collect data and information directly from citizens. The Met Office, for example, recently launched a worldwide open-source weather insight tool (wow.metoffice.gov.uk), which allows enthusiasts around the world to submit live data about the weather in their area.
This has provided rich data to the Met Office’s prediction systems and improved its capability and forecasting accuracy.
It could be adapted into a local ‘weather-watch’ network that feeds into civic emergency planning and deployment.
Furthermore, this approach to citizen data collection could extend to networks of neighbourhood care and home-watch for the elderly.
Using GPS mapping to track dementia patients might sound unpalatable but if data can identify vulnerable adults with persistent wandering habits and keep them safe, why shouldn’t it be shared between police and public health?
Another critical benefit of the new technology is it allows organisations to get a much more sophisticated picture of true demand.
This opens up a whole range of opportunities to refine services and reduce costs. So, an authority that really understood demand could empty your bin twice a week, or just once a month, according to your needs. Front offices could close during weekdays and open at weekends if that is what customers really needed.
Data analysis can also explain the behaviour that drives demand for services. Several councils, for example, have noted a spike in demand for crisis support for homeless young people towards the end of the week. In the past, this meant they increased housing-office cover on Thursday and Friday afternoons.
Closer analysis, however, showed if young people presented themselves on a weekend, it would trigger an immediate hardship payment and weekend lodging.
As this seemed to be on offer, the young people had no incentive to work through familial crises at home. Ironically, there is now anecdotal evidence that the so-called bedroom tax is having the opposite effect for parents who might otherwise have thrown their errant teenager out in the run-up to the weekend. In time, the data will show whether this is true.
One of the best sources of new data is social media. The London Borough of Hounslow used ‘social intelligence’ to try and engage more effectively with its community. The council identified 79,935 conversations on social media that were related to the borough. It could then use this to glean valuable intelligence on highways, council tax and customer services from people whose views would not otherwise have been captured.
We are now familiar with supermarkets gathering and using our data, so it seems sensible that public services should also use the information they gather to analyse our habits and preferences to improve provision. We will need to invest in data collection and management and overcome concerns about identifying and targeting the individuals concerned.
Yet it is clear there are real benefits from increasing our capacity to extract more value from data. Local authorities will be able to understand where to target resources for maximum impact; identify leading performance (and copy it in new locations); pick up on emerging trends and plan an efficient response; and measure and compare the outcome of different strategies.
That in turn will bring about a transformation in the quality of public services and the lives of citizens and enable scarce resources to be used more effectively. The challenge now is to make it happen.
Karen Cherrett is a local government expert at PA Consulting Group
This feature first appeared in Local Government News magazine.