The power of data to reform public services

Monday 20th May was the start of London Tech Week, a week long festival of live events celebrating tech innovation. Innovation isn’t just for the tech giants, such as Google and Apple, or the Silicon Roundabout start-ups. There is a lot going on in the public sector, and in particular Local Government. That is why I went to the event hosted by the London Borough of Camden titled “The Power of Data to Reform Public Services” to find out what other people in the public sector have been doing and what we can learn from them.

The introduction from Councillor Theo Blackwell, Cabinet member for Finance, Technology & Growth laid out the key challenges for local government. In particular he pointed to the shift from incremental budgeting to outcomes based budgeting where we are required to align our increasingly limited resources to achieve the necessary goal. This is forcing us to be innovative and to challenge the way we work as Councils and local government as a whole. A key way we can challenge what we do is by realising how much data we hold as public service providers and how we can use it to work more effectively.

Lessons from New York City – Mike Flowers

In the first session we heard from Mike Flowers, Chief Analytics Officer at Enigma, formerly Chief Analytics Officer of New York City. Mike started by pointing out that cities (and local government) hold tonnes and tonnes of data but they don’t necessarily know it.However, just having this data isn’t enough. It only becomes a valuable asset if you use it in a productive way. Mike told of his experiences  sharing data between departments in the city resulting in reduced fire risks, improved pro-active measured and more coordinated emergency response resulting in a reduction in deaths caused by fire in the city.

There were obstacles in convincing people to share their data with other departments. To overcome this, Mike and his team manually input data into spreadsheets and passed it on to prove the concept. Once the concept has been proven then digital solutions can be explored. This was a key lesson to learn that we often overlook; data is more important than digital. Similarly, you should only use data if it is relevant and useful. Mike encouraged us all to constantly ask “does analytics bring anything to this problem?”. If the answer is no then move on, don’t waste time and money forcing data that won’t have any impact.

The other key lesson was creating political sustainability in an environment governed by a political body that can change every few years in an election. In Mike’s experience the answer was for the fire service to own the service as they are a non-political permanent branch of the City. More generally, however, Mike advised that the key to driving a project forward is to have a dedicated owner of the problem you are trying to address. This may be in the form of a service manager or a product owner but it needs to be a person who can take responsibility and drive the project forward.

The final takeaway from Mike was that data insight is worthless if it doesn’t trigger action. The example he shared was that you can analyse the best place to park an ambulance in an emergency but at some point you actually have to move the vehicle! A more detailed account of his experiences and lessons learnt can be found here.

A Data Powered Revolution – Janet Hughes, GDS

Next on the bill was Janet Hughes to talk about the next steps in a data powered revolution. She started by noting that the main reason there is a perceived revolution occurring now is simply because there is more data becoming more freely available allowing us to build services using it.

A fantastic example of this is GDS’ Verify service. As residents and consumers we are seeking to access more and more services online. However, it is difficult to prove that someone tapping on a keyboard is who they say they are. GDS work with eight different companies to verify your identity using a wide range of available data including driving licence, mobile phone contract, birth and marriage information, charitable giving etc. The service is made resilient and inclusive by working with different companies and using many different types to data.

There are ten government services currently using Verify but GDS are looking for Local Authorities to get involved and start using it for their own services. It is an incredibly exciting development and will make many digital services a lot more streamlined and easy to access.

Using Data Better – Sarah Dougan, Deputy Director Camden Public Health

The next session was kicked off by Sarah Dougan telling us about the ways data has been used successfully in Islington. There were three key points to take away:

1. We need a to take a holistic approach to data, looking at the bigger picture. This may mean looking across boundaries which will require us to work with our neighbours. Boundaries tend to be meaningless to residents who may travel through multiple constituencies in a day. Our delivery of services and information should reflect this reality if we are able to do so through collaboration.

2. We need to ask the right questions. There are generally key themes to follow – e.g. residents, place based information, business information – and asking the right questions under each is key to making the most of your data.

3. We need to upskill our workforce to do more with data. This doesn’t mean everyone needs to be an analytics expert. Some people in your organisation may be data experts but it is important to upskill others to understand what questions they need to ask and to whom they need to ask them to get the answers they need.

An interesting comment that stuck with me is that the main reason behind Islington’s success is that the drive has come from the business, not from digital services. All too often we rely on the digital team in our organisation to show us the way but it is the responsibility of each of us to make data led solutions work.


The London Journey – Andrew Collinge, City Hall & Eddie Copeland, Nesta

Having heard about New York, Central Government and the story of one London Borough, it was time to hear about the vision for the whole of London. London is very different to New York. It is made up of 32 Borough Councils plus the City of London all with their own powers. New York on the other hand has five Boroughs but they only have minimal executive functions; decision making power lies with the Mayor of New York. This means that London faces a bigger challenge when it comes to collating its data.

The City Data Strategy was launched in March 2016. It is centred around recognising City Data as part of the infrastructure. The strategy is centred around six themes:

  1. Build and operate an efficient City Data Market
  2. Better organisation of City Data is needed if it is to have impact
  3. The value of City Data must be recognised
  4. Build public acceptance through security, privacy and trust
  5. Active governance
  6. A technology road map based on open standards and flexible interfaces

More information on the strategy can be read here but it all comes down to recognising the value of our data and using it effectively. We need to transcend our boundaries that aren’t meaningful to residents in order to make good use of data. As Andrew and Eddie both iterated; we have all the pieces of the jigsaw in the box, we just need to collaborate to put it all together.

A Success Story – Sherry Coutu CBE, Founders4Schools

Sherry Coutu gave the final talk of the day and an excellent example of a simple way to use data for high impact.

Founders4Schools is a charity that connects local business leaders to schools giving pupils the opportunity to learn about different careers available to them. They use publicly available data from LinkedIn, Companies House and their own data generated through reviews to create a resilient database of local practitioners. It is a great example of bringing different sources of data together to provide a meaningful service.


The data we hold as public sector organisations is an asset if we use it effectively. However, it is only effective once it triggers action. To make the most of it and achieve the highest impact for our residents we need to collaborate with our neighbours. but most importantly, we need to be asking the right questions to figure out which problems we should be solving with our data in the first place.

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