About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Introducing the Local Datavores research programme

How well do local authorities use data?

Across England, local authorities are asking questions about how they can redesign services, save money and drive local economic growth.

  • How many people will need adult social care services in 5 years time?
  • Which children are most likely to enter the care system and what support might prevent this happening?
  • How can traffic flows, public transport, cycle lanes and town centres be optimised to help local businesses to grow?
  • Which households are most likely to fall into council tax arrears?
  • How can money be saved on refuse collection by only emptying bins when they are full?
  • How effective are local authority commissioned services at delivering positive social outcomes?

​The common factor in the above questions is that they can all be answered, at least in part, by analysis of public sector data. And around the world, there are governments using data and sophisticated analytics to answer very similar questions.

In New York, data analysis predicts which buildings are most likely to have a fire, enabling fire safety inspections to be prioritised. In Seoul, mobile phone and geospatial data were used to provide a night bus service to a city of 10m people with just 30 vehicles. Other governments are analysing multiple data sets to help with prevention in health and social care services, such as predicting adverse birth outcomes, or children most at risk of abuse.

Councils have access to more data and better analytical tools now than at any point in history. From council tax collection to protecting vulnerable people, this data can provide insight into how we can improve outcomes for people and communities with ever decreasing resources.

This comes at a point where the need and potential for transforming the way local authorities meet local needs has never been greater, with challenging budget cuts creating pressure to change traditional ways of working. If used effectively, local authority data can be a major part of public service innovation, helping to achieve efficiencies and radical service transformation.

Data and sophisticated analytics present local authorities with a huge opportunity; the potential to transform local government service delivery, making it more efficient, more effective and more responsive to the needs of local residents, businesses and communities. While data and analytics may not provide the solution to all the challenges faced by councils, it’s hard to imagine any credible answers to these challenges in which the better use of data isn’t part of the story.

However, sophisticated data analysis tends to be the exception rather than the norm in local government, suggesting there is work needed to spread knowledge of the potential of data and the methods for realising this. In the US, there is evidence of a ‘data gap’, between the ambitions of city governments to use data to inform decision making and their ability to do so. It’s likely there is a similar phenomenon occurring in local government in England.

Nesta’s new research programme - the Local Datavores - aims to help local authorities use data better

The Local Datavores is a research programme which seeks to explore how local authorities can use data better to improve the lives of people and communities. Our research will look at the ways in which data can help local authorities to solve the financial and demographic pressures they will face over the coming years. We are pleased to be working with our partners on the programme, the Local Government Association and SAP.

At Nesta we have been interested for some time in how data can be used to contribute to innovation and solve social problems. In 2012, we launched the original datavores research, looking at how well businesses use the data available to them to inform decision making. We found that just 18% of the 500 companies we surveyed can be called ‘datavores’. These companies gather online customer data intensively, subject this data to sophisticated analyses (such as controlled trials and data and text mining), and use what they learn to improve their business.

In 2013 we started the Open Data Challenge Prize series. This was a series of seven challenge prizes to generate innovative and sustainable open data solutions to social challenges, such as housing, crime and justice, energy and education. More recently, we published Data for Good, a series of case studies exploring how capturing, sharing and analysing data in new ways can transform how charities work and how social action happens. Our CITIE programme provides a framework for city leadership, including the use of data and technology to drive growth. And in our report Rethinking Smart Cities, we took an in-depth look at how putting people’s lived experience at the heart of smart city projects increases the value of data.

Better use of data should be a key part of meeting financial and demographic challenges

Our Local Datavores programme aims to articulate the ways in which data analytics can help local authorities to find savings and improve outcomes for people and communities. The research will highlight tangible ways for councils to get more value from how they manage and use data, about how they can overcome the barriers which prevent the potential of data and analytics being realised.

During the research we will carry out primary research (including case studies and a survey), desk based research, workshops, and will report our findings in a series of publications. We are currently in the case study phase of the work, which is supported by the Local Government Association and began with a research workshop.

A summary of this workshop is attached to this blog and the workshop materials can be downloaded here. Later in the summer we’ll be publishing a report on the in-depth case study research, and developing the other research modules, with a final report and recommendations scheduled for late autumn 2016.

We are always keen to hear from people working on data projects in local authorities and related organisations. If you would like to be involved in the research, or have heard about or been involved in any pioneering data science projects, please get in touch at [email protected]

Image credit: Eric Fisher via Flickr, CC license


Tom Symons

Tom Symons

Tom Symons

Deputy Director, fairer start mission

Tom is the deputy mission director for the fairer start mission at Nesta.

View profile