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Public data for good? Absolutely!



Guest opinion: Ailsa Hawkins, business analyst in the customer transformation programme at Portsmouth City Council, conveys some lessons on harnessing data for the public good.

About once a year, I realise how geeky I am when I go to the UKAuthority Data4Good conference. When I sit in a room with so many enthusiastic data analysts and scientists who are doing so many great things with data in the public sector (especially around the vulnerable), it gives me hope that these developments are possible, given the right political and management and will of course.

Last week’s event was no exception, a really enjoyable day and very enlightening, with some common themes throughout the talks:

One is that joining up disparate data sources is HARD and takes time and effort, so there has to be a clear vision and business case to carry the work forward.  Directors need to be able to trust the business case, to believe in the programme, that benefits will be delivered, even if they are four or five years down the line.

Another is that the hardest part of the process was always getting the complex data sharing agreements in place. Sometimes this took numerous legal teams months to agree what data sharing, between very similar public bodies, should look like.   

This is frustrating but understandable, as unfortunately the law can be interpreted in different ways and this leads to a lot of grey areas. The public sector is risk averse and needs to look a little further, realise that the benefits far outweigh the risks and that, with the use of ethical frameworks etc, it can work.

Business case factors

Then is the fact that there are huge benefits to sharing data and using joined up data for the public good (one authority has a pipeline of over 200 ideas for projects to be refined!) and there is a huge cost to not sharing. This needs to be incorporated into business cases by the analysts – the cost of citizens not getting the help/treatment they require in a timely fashion for instance.

Finally, good data costs money. This is something particularly difficult to communicate to cash strapped directors, who want the information but are reluctant to put the resource behind getting it and ensuring it is accurate. This is a huge problem.

It was good to hear how none of this can happen without an excellent business case – something I despair about sometimes – see my previous blogs in the Benefits Realisation section of my website.

I left London last week enthused but also a little depressed, as there is a big mountain to climb in some authorities.

This article has been republished from Ailsa Hawkins’ website.

Image from iStock, bridge mipan

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