The importance of data analytics in the UK public sector and wider society was in the spotlight earlier this year, following a report from Policy Exchange. It called for elected mayors to set up an Office of Data Analytics. If enacted, these teams of experts will have one central aim: Get the most out of the vast sums of public and private data at their disposal. The hope is that the scheme will ultimately save money (both public and private) and improve the standard of living for the UK public. So, a good thing all round!
Indeed, the report’s authors state that “most cities have 'vast quantities' of data that if accessed and used effectively could help improve public services, optimise transport routes, support the growth of small businesses and even prevent cycling accidents.”
Over the last two decades, I've witnessed many government attempts to adopt analytics. I've been privileged to work on some great successes, and, in hindsight, am thankful we didn't win some of the projects we chased. Looking at the challenges those projects faced, I’m excited by the idea of an Office of Data Analytics for local government -- it's a move that could deliver an almost perfect storm of conditions for success.
The current status quo (probably) comprises analytically underwhelmed customers with an entirely justified pre-disposition to expect little from a low budget government IT project. Sketchily defined outputs, variable input data quality and ridiculously short delivery timelines don't help the situation.
However, with Hadoop on commodity hardware we're seeing local administrations doing things in minutes that the million-dollar mainframe merchants in central government wouldn't believe. Low cost in-memory analytics is now available on low cost hardware, and this democratisation means users can self-drive the system to get results quickly.
That means local authorities can take demographic data, consultation surveys and intelligence from open source (such as the Internet) to gain a deep understanding of population needs and priorities. The software can facilitate the selection of the correct analytical technique and can ensure that all guidance is statistically valid. Virtual real-time analysis can't be hijacked by vested interests, nor will it lead to mob rule. Imagine being able to use hard facts to prove the tabloids are misrepresenting public opinion. It's no longer lies, damn lies and statistics - this can become the era of, lies, damn lies OR statistics!
That said, there are some very real benefits that small teams of data analysts could realise in local government. Smart cities are very much part of the zeitgeist right now. Often, these conversations focus on the infrastructure needed to maintain connectivity, or the rise of smart machines and whether or not they will become our robot masters. What’s seldom mentioned is the human element. People are the ones that connect the results of data analytics with what it means for day-to-day life and how it can benefit the public.
Eddie Copeland, head of technology at Policy Exchange, is spot on in his analysis of the situation. Most cities do “lack the ability to join up, analyse and act upon the vast quantities of data they already have.” It’s the people who do this -- the data experts.
The London Fire Brigade already uses data analytics to focus resources on fire risk areas, while New York City uses analytics to improve parking and traffic control. There’s even a project involving a food bank run by churches in Liverpool. A combination of data experts with the right tools available is already producing great results – so imagine what’s possible if more joined up so that decisions could be taken from a city-wide view, rather than the current, silo-based approach.
If the elected mayors across the UK are to be successful in setting up these teams of experts, they need to set a goal. Start with a clear understanding of where they might be going; if it’s exploratory, be clear and open about it, and set up the project for that aim from the outset. This is a great initiative, so I hope it’s given serious consideration by our decision-makers in government.
For more, check out 10 simple ways to make your city smarter.