Organisations are realising the benefits from harnessing the power of geospatial data, writes Harvey Blenkarne, Public Sector Lead, at Precisely
One of the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic has been a higher profile for location data in public services, with its crucial role most evident in the co-ordination of efforts to support vulnerable people.
Some organisations have seen location data as a crucial asset for years, but others are now recognising its potential and looking at how it can be applied to challenges beyond those of the pandemic – which raises questions about how to do so and its linkages with other types of data.
This provided the focus of a recent UKA Live discussion, supported by Precisely and involving Tracy Lister, strategic geospatial development and support manager at Walsall Council, Martin Dowler, knowledge manager at Cheshire and Wirral Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, Richard Duffield, head of customer insights at GeoPlace, Ian Drury, director of data consultancy Ultranyx and UKA publisher Helen Olsen Bedford.
An audience poll confirmed the effect of the pandemic on how location data is perceived, with 28% saying it has significantly raised its profile in their organisations, 35% saying it has made it a little more important and 35% saying that it had always been important. This was accompanied by 48% responding yes to the questions of whether the pandemic has changed the culture of data sharing within their organisation and with other bodies.
Exploring the potential of location intelligence
The discussion made clear that that there is a rising appetite from local government to better adopt geospatial insights throughout their organisation – with Covid-19 came stay-at-home-orders and social distancing mandates that made it especially challenging for councils seeking to protect their most vulnerable. During the pandemic, councils such as Torfaen Council saw the urgent need to increase the effectiveness and reach of their volunteer community and realised that they could do so through leveraging location-based technology. In just three weeks, Torfaen Council were able to launch a mobile app to map the location of community members in need, match those residents with available volunteers, and optimise the effectiveness of volunteer resources.
But location intelligence can also help councils to prepare for other kinds of unexpected events – The District of Sedgemoor lies within the heartlands of rural Somerset and was one of the worst affected areas of flooding earlier this year, with floodwaters reaching 8 feet in some areas, causing millions of pounds of damage, and forcing the evacuation of hundreds of people from their homes. Sedgemoor District Council are now leveraging location intelligence to map the properties and addresses worst hit by flooding, as well as those most vulnerable to flood risk in the future and share insights across the region to identify and improve the management of activities including waste collection, planning and the upkeep of outdoor spaces in order to minimise future risks to their citizens.
Whilst innovative in its use of location intelligence, Sedgemoor District Council is not the only local government authority making the most of these tools. Public sector organisations are now widely using this kind of intelligence behind-the-scenes to make decisions every day. Police use the tools to decide how to deploy resources based on crime statistics, highway agencies use spatial data to make decisions on traffic and road management, and healthcare services use location intelligence tools to identify population demographics, and tailor the services they provide.
Increased awareness of UPRNs
The UKA Live also discussed the increased awareness of the value of unique property reference numbers (UPRNs), the numeric identifiers for addressable locations in Great Britain that are allocated by local authorities and managed nationally by GeoPlace. They can provide a link for different datasets, overcoming any ambiguity on how an address is presented and link to geographical co-ordinates for use in geographical information systems (GIS) and spatial analysis.
Along with unique street reference numbers (USRNs) they do a lot of powerful work ‘under the bonnet’ in co-ordinating services and supporting analysis that feeds into future plans. They can also contribute to the visualisation that GIS systems provide to help officials understand the service priorities for different areas – a factor that Tracy Lister said has been valuable in locating vulnerable people at Walsall Council.
Challenges in the adoption of location-based data
One challenge discussed was the technical difficulties of adopting UPRNs into legacy systems, but with their use in new services being mandated by the Government last year this is something likely to improve, even if it takes time to take full effect.
The quality of data in legacy systems is also an issue, requiring an effort to periodically check features such as addresses, remove duplicates and ensure it contains the appropriate features. But this can be achieved through the adoption of data management and analytics solutions - allowing public sector organisations to cleanse, integrate and manage their data effectively across their departments.
Another major challenge, but one that could lead to great opportunities, would be in integrating location data with personal identifiers. This could add more detail to visualisations and strengthen the grasp of how problems affecting individuals could relate to the areas in which they live or work. In turn, it could help staff in different public sector teams identify when they could be facing problems with the same root cause.
The NHS number was proposed as a possibility during the discussion and there are personal identifiers in social care systems, although if another could be used across public services it would have a greater potential.
At the same time, it would place extra demands on the technology and require an even stronger effort in cleaning the data and a high level of information governance. Concerns around public trust are always to the fore when any data can be related to individuals, and there would likely be a long, complex debate before a workable approach could be found.
Breaking down data siloes
This relates to familiar issues around data sharing. The pandemic has promoted an increased willingness to share within and between public authorities, but there are still a lot of siloes from which it can be difficult to extract data, and worries about breaking data protection regulations. These could be barriers in the way of making more of location data.
But there will also be a strong incentive to get over these. There is a widespread view that public sector finances will become even tighter and that organisations will have to find even more value in their data to cope with the pressure. Advancing the use of data is key to modernising day-to-day operations and fundamentally improving the places we all live and work in. The real prize is in going beyond location data to location intelligence, providing the insights for new solutions to service problems and long strategies for sustainable services.
The overall aim is for everyone in the public sector to realise the benefits and power of location intelligence, share the datasets, increase access and increase the benefits.
Learn more about how location intelligence is helping public sector organisations to prepare for the unexpected, take a look at our customer story created with Sedgemoor District Council here
Precisely (formed in 2020 from a combination of Syncsort and Pitney Bowes Software & Data) is the global leader in data integrity, providing accuracy, consistency, and context in data for 12,000 customers in more than 100 countries, including 90 percent of the Fortune 100. Its public sector solutions allow our customers to increase citizen engagement, create cost efficiencies, and enable the smart places of tomorrow. Learn more here
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