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Exploiting data to navigate the perfect storm


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An enterprise data platform is an important asset in meeting new demands on public services, writes Freddie Saunders, data and power platform specialist at Hitachi Solutions  

A perfect storm has been brewing around the data capabilities of the public sector.

The situation became more testing as the Covid-19 pandemic threw up a series of new demands, such as contact tracing, identifying people for shielding lists, the need to rapidly develop and deploy solutions for supporting vulnerable people during lockdown, and to support businesses through grant management.

Some of these responsibilities will remain, evolving over time to place new requirements on the data that has made them possible.

Along with this, many people have become more data literate, taking careful note of government updates on the R number, hospitalisations and mortality rates, and often changing their behaviour in response to fluctuations in the information at national and regional level.

The Covid-19 dashboard is still being viewed by around 300,000 per day and has been redesigned by Public Health England 11 times in 18 months to deal with the demand and user feedback.

This has prompted many people to raise their expectations of the data they should be able to obtain from across the public sector, but also provided a momentum for organisations to intensify their use of it, both to keep the public better informed and to open up new opportunities in delivering services.

Explore and deploy

They can build on this momentum through expanding their central data capability, using a cloud based enterprise data platform that can transform their existing processes and activities. It provides the scope to explore and deploy new uses of the data, internally and collaborating and partners, then scale up to meet and exceed growth demands.

In doing so, there are a handful of factors to keep in mind. One is that there is a lot of credibility in a phased approach, reducing the risk that comes with a ‘big bang’ and using the scalable capability of the platform to take a transformation step by step.

Another is the need to create a consensus around the use of the platform as the central data capability for the organisations, rather than allowing scope for different departments to carry out their own procurements and deployments. It needs an effort to make them aware of the full capability and what it can achieve, ideally with a series of agile deployments and quick wins – each within a matter of weeks – to realise the benefits and make the business case clear.

There is also a need to ensure that any solution developed on the platform is based on a principle of privacy by design, with access to specific datasets reserved only for staff or partners with a credible reason for seeing it.

In addition, it has to be recognised that the technology and data are only part of the transformation, which requires more challenging work to update processes and governance and ensure that the organisation’s people are ready to go along with the change. It requires a joined up approach between digital and IT teams to ensure the technology and data aligns with what they need to do their jobs.

Southwark's achievement

We have seen a prime example of what can be achieved at the London Borough of Southwark, which has worked with Lewisham and Brent - its partners in a digital shared service – and Hitachi Solutions on the development of a Vulnerability Hub as the basis its response to the pandemic.

Built on the Microsoft Power Platform and Dynamics 365, it enabled the councils to identify people who needed support and co-ordinate the work of existing services with charities and volunteers to deliver groceries and medicines.

Southwark’s chief digital and technology officer, Dionne Lowndes, told the UKAuthority Innovation and Data4Good conference that this contrasted sharply with her past experiences of plenty of talk but little happening to improve data sharing.

“We found we were able to quickly collaborate with partners to create clean data on the platform,” she said. “It enabled the council to work with volunteers and charities and showed we could build platform at speed.

“For me it’s really about agility, that you can build data platforms at pace. Instead of an approach where you are putting in all of the data from the organisation in, it’s about understanding what you want from the data and having fewer datasets, but with better defined parameters and outputs.

“You don’t have to move to a huge data programme; you can leverage those benefits quite quickly.”

Further potential

As an example of further ambitions she pointed to using the Vulnerability Hub in children’s services, with the creation of five datasets, taking in individual attributes on individual families, to provide a complete view of the pressures affecting the children and help identify those that could need support. It will also involve the use of predictive analytics to make the council more responsive in shaping future services.

She said Hitachi Solutions has further supported Southwark in understanding how the initiative related to its business plan and strategies for customer access and digital and technology, and in developing a technology investment roadmap based on an analysis of its problems and legacy tech in place.

There is potential for benefits from the data platform in plenty of other areas. The Building Safety Bill, which the Government is planning to implement by 2023, will require local authorities to pull together data from housing, maintenance, finance and other areas to ensure they meet its requirements.

There is also a major priority in shifting to a more preventative approach to public health, identifying factors that could ramp up the risk of specific conditions and taking action at local and regional levels. And there is scope to provide a clear view of bed availability in an area’s hospitals to help in response to an incident or a surge of infections.

These are just some of the challenges arising within that perfect storm, and it is becoming increasingly clear that a strong data capability underpinned by a robust, flexible and interoperable platform will be crucial in navigating the way through.

If you are interested in finding out how you can kickstart your data journey and where to begin, please contact Hitachi Solutions who would be happy to undertake a Cloud & Data Transformation Discovery Workshop for your organisation

Image from iStock, Natalya Burova

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