In our latest round of interviews, we asked the City of York Council, Kirklees Council, Leeds City Council, London Borough of Newham and Staffordshire County Council about the ways their organisations have used data and technology during the COVID-19 crisis. Our interviews revealed that during this pandemic, councils have collected better data, analysed and shared it in new ways, all whilst transitioning most of their work and services online.
Over the past few months, councils all over the country have been collecting new types of data in order to better understand patterns of need and inequality, offers of support, or safety in public spaces, as well as to keep track of the breadth of their COVID-19 response and its impact.
In Newham, the Council is crowdsourcing data from citizens about walking and cycling safety in the borough. People are encouraged to flag existing concerns, tag them to a specific location and propose solutions to help with safe social distancing, walking and cycling at that location. This approach was developed in just a week and so far there have been over 1000 responses. City of York Council has been collecting data about their response to the crisis, including the numbers of volunteers deployed, communications, free school meals, grants and more (see below).
“Our Coronavirus response in numbers” infographic- City of York Council
In addition to there being more data collected, a great deal of the information that has been gathered is more granular and detailed than before the crisis. This has helped better understand the differences between geographical areas as well as the social and health impacts this crisis has had on different groups and communities.
This is reflected in the work of Kirklees and Newham council, who since the start of lockdown have been working to understand COVID-19 related inequalities by pulling together data on vulnerability, need, unemployment, shielding and more. Collecting more detail has helped them to better understand what is needed at different geographical levels and to tailor their response accordingly. For many councils drawing together their data sources in this way had been almost impossible prior to the pandemic due to GDPR.
Data mapping and data visualisation
Collecting more information has meant that councils have also had to find ways of centralising and analysing it in real time. Using data mapping and data visualisation tools such as Tableau, Power BI and ArcGIS to create live dashboards and data visualisations has helped staff better understand what can be learned, where demand is coming from and how to better tailor responses to different patterns of need. Whilst these kinds of dashboards are by no means new, as Staffordshire Council pointed out to us, it is “the fact that they were set up very quickly and the scale and breadth of information these dashboards pull together that has been really impressive”.
In Newham, Power BI dashboards have been developed to share accessible information on the Community Impact of COVID-19, infection rates and hot spots and tracking delivery of food parcels, prescriptions and more. In Kirklees, the Council has been collecting information on requests for help and offers of support and is analysing the data using Tableau dashboards: “Previously a lot of our data was held in spreadsheets, so being able to see it in Tableau has made a huge difference. It has helped us with understanding where demand is coming from and the different types of demand and helped us match need and assets.” Other councils such as Richmond and Wandsworth Councils have used Power BI to pull together public dashboards providing data on population groups that are considered vulnerable and mapping information on health and economic vulnerability.
Data for learning
Using dashboards to share and visualise data has also enabled councils to learn from these datasets in new ways. Many of the councils we spoke to mentioned that there has been a shift towards data being used as a tool for learning, rather than control. This is consistent with recent Upstream Collaborative work that highlights how data can “facilitate learning about complex problems and the people experiencing them”. More positive attitudes towards risk and the reframing of failure as a learning opportunity has also helped shift the focus towards what could be learned instead. As Leeds City Council shared with us, “it’s helping organisations work together without blaming anyone, but learning and moving on”.
In order to facilitate better learning from data, councils have also been going beyond quantitative data and dashboards and complementing these with qualitative data and stories - what anthropologists call ‘thick data’. This has allowed them to explore these issues in more depth and better understand the experiences and needs of people living in the community. York City Council emphasised the importance of this: “People are not data dashboards. On a human level, it’s important that we mix the quantitative and qualitative data as it enhances the narrative.”
The past few months have also seen a great deal of data being shared between public sector organisations, which has enabled local authorities to build a more comprehensive picture of what is needed locally. Councils such as Kirklees have been taking a system-wide approach and sharing data with partners to inform practice. In London, willingness to share local authority data has enabled LOTI to identify vulnerable children using eligibility for free school meals as a vulnerability indicator and to create an Information Sharing Agreement in just three days, instead of the usual six months. Going forwards, as participants to the weekly MHCLG Local Digital calls pointed out, local authorities must “build on this momentum to push forward agendas on data standards and reusable technical patterns for data access to deliver our digital vision”.
The greatest change in terms of how local authorities have used digital tools over the past few months has been the mass transition to working remotely. Overnight, staff have had to be supplied with the necessary equipment and switch to using online collaboration and meeting tools that previously seemed years away. Digital and IT teams have been under immense pressure to enable teams to work remotely. In Newham 2,900 staff members got new technology to enable home working in the space of a fortnight including shifting the call centre so it could be delivered by staff working at home. This transition has been enabled through tools such as Microsoft 365, Teams, Zoom and WhatsApp.
In addition to council staff working remotely, another significant change has been the shift towards providing some of their council services online. This not only has ensured that people can get expert care, advice and support in a safe way throughout the pandemic, but also that staff have been able to better fit their work around their personal caring responsibilities.
For Staffordshire County Council, COVID-19 has led to mass service digitisation: “We’re having online conferences with vulnerable children and adults, we’re registering deaths online, doing online hospital appointments. It has moved us forward 3-5 years and showed us you can do this online and it’s so much more convenient.”
Skills and digital inclusion
Digital channels have become increasingly important during lockdown as local authorities provide more services online. However, as research points out, COVID-19 is also increasing digital inequality. Therefore, digital skills and digital inclusion have been particularly important in ensuring that the transition to digital is effective, fair and inclusive. As councils provide more services online and a great majority of their staff are working from home, local authorities have been working to support both staff and residents and ensure everyone has the connectivity infrastructure, equipment and skills to use digital services and stay involved. This has meant that people were quickly upskilled where needed and they were provided with the necessary support and equipment.
In York, many GPs with people on the shielding list couldn’t get out and support patients face to face. In response the Council has worked with partners in primary care and the voluntary sector to mobilise volunteers to support patients at home who are experiencing covid symptoms. A mix of welfare calls and equipping people with devices to connect older citizens with their GP online is being provided, supporting health and wellbeing. Additionally, their hardship fund scheme also includes a digital inclusion pathway. Unwanted household or business devices are donated, upcycled and distributed to those who are digitally excluded, including through the Making Every Adult Matter Coalition. Similarly, in Leeds, the Council has supplied the rough sleepers in hotel accommodation with tablets, giving them access to additional support online.
The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the digital transformation of public services. In one of our previous research updates, we mentioned how local authorities are already noticing a return to pre-COVID behaviours and ways of working, such as siloed working patterns or lengthy bureaucratic processes. As we move out of the initial phase of the crisis towards recovery, councils hope that, in terms of data and digital, they will be able to hold on to these positive changes long term.
This research update is part of a series exploring changes within local government due to COVID-19 and is builds on the work of the ‘Upstream Collaborative’, a collaborative network to support Local Government innovators to share, accelerate and assess new ways of working that enable citizens’ needs to be met in empowering and inclusive ways. You can read our first, second, third and fourth research update to better understand what this crisis has meant for local authorities in the UK.