Why the future of public sector data isn’t in static reports

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A piece I put together on data viz in the public sector that appeared in Government Computing


The public sector has always been a heavy data user. But in the quest to improve results for citizens, governments, both local and national, are increasingly analysing and linking data in new ways to drive better decisions.

With recent news indicating further plans to share data more fluidly across government departments, it’s clear that unlocking more value from existing data is firmly on the agenda in Westminster. On this site, Matt Pennells, Harrow Council’s senior geographic information officer also argued the case for a specialised data chief position, reflecting how “highly important” information sharing is to the functions of local authorities.

The greater use of data both reflects our computing-driven times and The Government Digital Strategy , in which Francis Maude, MP and Minister for the Cabinet Office explained how “Government has got to do better”. By going “digital by default”, it’s estimated that the government could save between £1.7bn and £1.8bn each year. But this isn’t just about saving money or providing quick and convenient services like Self Assessment or registering vehicles.

Maude goes on to explain that the UK needs to embed digital skills into the organisational DNA, developing a culture that puts people’s needs first so services are planned and designed around what users need to get done. Be they individuals or businesses meeting their obligations to the state, or entrepreneurs seeking to access and exploit public data to spur innovation.

Judgements shape government strategy and determine how resources will be allocated. Whether it’s policing, healthcare or education the decision has to be right and based on the most up-to-date and suitable data. In today’s government organisations those high-pressure decisions have to be made quickly, and against the potential for getting it very wrong or taking action too late.

The data challenge

Helping guide those decisions is access to an unprecedented level of data and information. Every day 2,500,000,000 gigabytes of data is created – enough to fill over 27,000 iPads every minute. More critical data on every facet of life, from land-use to heath trends, public finances, products and suppliers can be quantified, stored, and analysed than ever before.

After people, data is arguably the most important asset that any local government organisation possesses. Having the data is one thing, but being able to extract meaningful and actionable insights from it can be a considerable challenge. Not everyone is data-savvy or a technical whizz, and those skills don’t come cheap.

The challenge for everyone in government is how to filter the white noise and actually see and understand the nuggets of information that impact services by maximising opportunities for better delivery, finding margins to shave, or new areas for action.

In a world where people are drowning in data – from information online, on spreadsheets, and in databases on tablets and devices – public servants need the skills and tools to meet this challenge in a timely and effective manner.

Data scientists and data doers together

One of the consequences of the explosion of big data has been the emergence of the data scientist. These are people whose chief priority is to explore and examine data from many sources, then tell the organisation why this matters. Their role involves seeking deep insights not readily apparent.

But whilst restricting data to a gate keeper within a business, whether it’s IT or a data analyst, keeps quality high, it only works for a certain volume of activity. Both in the private sector and in government those organisations that are reaping the most are those that have liberated data from being siloed with specialists to being accessible to everyone. This democratisation of data allows all members of the organisation to find their own insights to increase performance and productivity. There’s a place, and a need, both for specialists and for those willing to interrogate their own data within government.

Story telling through data

It’s tempting to present just data and facts when advocating change, but when colleagues, or whoever you are presenting to gets overwhelmed by information without context, the power of that insight can be lost. Reams of data within massive slide shows can confuse and lose audiences, or leave them so completely tuned out that they take away only a fraction of the key narrative.

The public sector is uniquely placed to engage its audiences of colleagues or customers. The public service ‘story’ can be readily understood, and when combined with data can be used to effect powerful change. Explaining strategies powerfully by demonstrating the data that proves the narrative and moves the audience to action as a consequence of the story they take part in.

Research and Insight Teams such as at Leicestershire County Council seek to analyse the data and find that story: Who are the characters, what is the challenge, what hurdles have to be overcome, what do we want the audience to do or understand as a result? Stories are how people think and make sense of the world, but government and businesses run on data. The data-driven story is the way to create engagement and powerful change.

With a staff of 22,000, Leicestershire County Council cares for a population of 700,000 residents in the largely rural county. The Research and Insight Team provide actionable information to support council workers in areas as diverse as crime and community safety, economics, demography, and around both children and adult issues. Data analysis software from Tableau enables the team to have deeper conversations about the connections between data, solving more complex questions with greater speed.

The team manages many different data sets, providing insights and answers for staff with diverse roles such as social care workers, highway maintenance workers and librarians. The role involves consultations with staff seeking answers from their data to drive through service roadblocks. When they can visually see their data and how it fits into their own mission, or story, comprehension and buy-in is usually instant.

Make data for everyone and tell a story

Symbols, pictures, graphs and charts are effective communication (story-telling) devices. In one look, the viewer instantly assesses the message and can focus on the meaning. Tables of data or numbers require people to look at each number, compare and contrast it to other numbers and then draw conclusions about the message. It is even more work for the viewer when parsing text. A well-chosen and well-created visual, or series of visuals, easily tells the story in a flash.

The Leicestershire team used to provide colleagues with information around ‘what’, and were often unable to deliver the ‘why’. Data analysis with visualisation opened up greater possibilities by allowing staff to interrogate data and see results on-the-fly in an easily understandable format. They are changing how people think about their data and the services provided. Colleagues are now enabled to ask questions and drive insights that simply were too complex to see before, and to answer faster. Inevitably, the more data people begin to use the more questions they ask and the more insights they gain in a virtuous circle.

Governments have access to more data than ever before in history, and a fantastic opportunity to be more impactful too, but it can be overwhelming. Information is powerful, but only if you understand it. By embracing the concept of storytelling as a way to communicate data insights, and through data visualisation tools, the government has a powerful way of making sense of, and widely unlocking, data.

These methods speak to the human need to understand things visually and allow for greater exploration and explanation of data in real-time. And through faster understanding, faster insights and faster time to action.

Widening access to data across government is a fantastic aim that will inevitably provide great benefits to society. To widen participation government organisations need the tools to engage public servants visually with data, It can be a cost effective way of opening government, powering faster and more effective public services, and driving greater efficiencies.

The future of public sector data isn’t in static reports – certainly not for engaging with outside communities. When users can slice and dice data however they want, they understand faster because they see the story behind the numbers.

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