Reductions in budgets, soaring demand for certain services, austerity, and rising citizen expectations are all current challenges that require public sector organisations to rethink how they deliver their services, deploy their assets and make the best use of their staff. Business as usual is not an option.
At Nesta we believe that some of these challenges can be tackled, or at least assisted, by the good use of data analytics (for example, Nesta’s Datavores of Local Government discussion paper explores how data can help councils provide more personalised, effective and efficient services). Done well, it can help save lives, prevent major incidents, enable organisations to make more efficient and impactful decisions and improve the lives of those living and working in the communities they serve.
Taking inspiration from the work of New York City’s Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics, established during the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Nesta has been working to adapt and develop the model for the needs of UK cities and regions over the last three years, while keeping true to its original aim of enabling better services and decision making through data analytics.
When we began our work in this field in 2016, none existed in the UK. Today, with at least nine in operation and many more being considered by other cities and regions.
We began in 2016 with a year-long pilot for a London Office of Data Analytics (LODA), a collaboration between the Greater London Authority (GLA), Nesta, 12 London boroughs and ASI - a data science firm (now called Faculty). Together, we sought to develop a machine-learning model to help building inspectors identify unlicensed houses in multiple occupation (HMOs), properties that are often linked to dangerous and exploitative living conditions and which remain largely unknown to local councils.
In 2018 we also launched a pilot with Essex Police and Essex County Council to help the county use data to fight modern slavery. After running a discovery phase to understand the nature of the issue and the data available, it was decided to pivot to helping identify businesses posing risk more broadly.
Not everything worked as planned
In late 2016 we worked with local authorities across the North East of England to explore how their collective data might help them to collaborate on understanding and tackling issues related to alcohol abuse. This pilot was less successful, as even after the data was collected and visualised on a regional map, it was not clear what local public sector organisations would do differently. Learning from that experience, we refined our four-step method for tackling public sector challenges with data, with additional guidance to help organisations think about what they would do differently with better data.
Lessons from the London HMO Pilot
In January 2018 we published a summary report of the first pilot experiment in London, detailing what we did and the lessons we learned. At a technical level, we found that local authorities that do not have the ability to join up and match records held in different IT systems within their own organisation will find it extremely challenging to collaborate with other organisations and their data. Our experience also showed that ODA projects are more about getting people to collaborate in new ways across organisations than they are about doing new things with data and technology. Data projects can never just be delegated to data science teams; they must be organisation-wide efforts. Following the success of the pilot, London has established a permanent ODA function in the form of the London Office of Technology and Innovation and the City Data Analytics Programme.
Lessons from the Essex pilot
Details of the Essex pilot and the lessons learned can be found in our summary report. A key finding was that conducting a discovery phase is essential, not just good practice. The early insights we gained from workshops with frontline staff significantly changed our thinking (for example, we realised that the paucity of data on businesses involved in modern slavery could lead to misleading results) and helped us ensure the project delivered a tool that could integrate with organisations’ working practices. Following the pilot, in June 2019 the Essex Centre for Data Analytics (ECDA) was launched at Nesta’s City Data Conference in Birmingham. ECDA is at the core of the ‘Essex Innovates’ programme, a data science and AI partnership between Essex County Council, Essex Police and Essex University.
UK ODA Research
In addition to the London Office of Technology and Innovation and the Essex Centre for Data Analytics, there are now at least seven other Offices of Data Analytics operating around the UK. Details of all nine, their formation, design, governance and projects are covered and mapped in our report State of ODAs in the UK. That report also contains advice and guidance for cities and regions who are considering establishing their own Office of Data Analytics and wish to know where to start.