What Citizens Advice is learning about data-driven innovation
In the blog below, Laura Bunt, Head of Policy Research and Communications at Citizens Advice, writes about why the charity decided to tap into their wealth of data to achieve greater impact with the help of DataKind and some data scientist volunteers. Here she offers some insights to other organisations considering doing the same.
Throughout the past year, someone talked to Citizens Advice about a housing problem every two and a half minutes. Between July and September this year, 22,000 of those issues were about problems with the private rented sector, most frequently difficulties with essential maintenance and repairs. We know that of the 2,000 people who came to see us facing eviction despite being up to date with their rent, half had dependent children. We have seen a 20 per cent increase in the number of people coming to see us about this problem since the same period last year, an indication that the private rented market is in some serious need of attention.
With our network of Citizens Advice Bureau in 3,000 community locations across England and Wales, a national phone service and online Advice Guide, Citizens Advice sees first-hand the challenges people face in their everyday lives. The impacts of poor policy design or delivery; the struggle to manage high energy bills, steep rents or rising food prices; people’s worries about fragile employment, rocketing debts, tough choices at retirement or relationship advice. Last year a third of the UK’s online population sought online advice from Advice Guide, giving us a direct insight into the questions and challenges that are keeping too many people awake at night.
Image courtesy of Citizens Advice: Real-time searches for online advice from Citizens Advice (Click on image for larger version - for a live version click here)
Combine the breadth and depth of data Citizens Advice generates with the technical skills and tools of data science, and you quickly see the potential for impact. That is why we leapt at the chance to work with DataKind and their network of volunteer data scientists to run two weekend ‘data dives’ over this summer, to explore the scope of Citizens Advice data and to prototype new methods and products that could help us to understand more about the problems facing the country. As a charity already driven by data and insight from people’s experience, we wanted to explore how we could do more with data, and set out to develop new tools to help us respond in real-time.
The products from the events are still in development (getting ready for launch in early 2015), but here are five important lessons we have learnt so far:
- Ask the questions that really matter
As any researcher knows, the insight drawn from data will depend on the quality of the question. Setting the challenge for a data dive is no different. Work hard to define your question properly, and be sure that the answer is something you care about as an organisation. For us, we wanted to learn how Citizens Advice could identify problems early, to act as an ‘early warning system’ and spot emerging trends to help us act to prevent problems escalating and causing greater harm.
- Be open to the unexpected
It is often difficult to make the space for experimentation. Whilst in developing the question you want to be as clear and specific as possible, in beginning to explore avenues with the data be open to different ideas and methodologies. An early visualisation may give you an idea for a new route for analysis, or an approach you thought promising may quickly turn into a dead-end. Keep flexible and responsive to new findings, working together as a team to adjust plans as the project evolves.
- Method isn’t everything; focus on solving the problem
- Put in the hard work to make data accessible and safe
- Your people are your sustainability