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The data ambitions at the Food Standards Agency

26/02/19

Mark Say Managing Editor

The development of a new digital service can often get tangled in competing priorities, but Julie Pierce has a clear view of the prime aims.

Julie Pierce

“To get a good digital service it should meet everybody’s needs,” she says. “It should be that people want to use it, enter the right data first time without having to think too hard about it, ensure it’s validated, and the goal is always to try to get as complete coverage as possible.”

As director of openness, digital and data at the Food Standards Agency (FSA) she is overseeing a number of projects in which this a central factor, all aimed at supporting its work with local authorities to strengthen food safety and hygiene in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In talking with UKAuthority it becomes clear that one of the biggest challenges facing the FSA is the wide range of data it has to pull together, and the disparities in the way it has been collected. This is clear to see in the project it is currently highlighting, the development of a new digital system for the registration of food businesses.

The initiative is aimed at encouraging food service operators to register directly onto the new FSA system rather than with their local authorities. With the latter retaining responsibility for enforcing food service regulations, they will obtain the data to populate their own management information systems (MIS) through an API.

Iterations

There are a couple of notable elements to the implementation. One is that it is an iterative process, with the FSA collecting user feedback to feed into further development of the system, and this has some way to run, especially in the nature of the data it collects.

“Two things are going on here,” Pierce says. “One is registering as a business, and I think that is well done; people know what it is and have the details to support it.

“The other part is provision of data that may be informing food related risk about the business. It may be the latter which we need to change, collect data on different topics.

“Running in parallel with the registration service is a general surveillance approach looking at the food system and data from multiple sources to understand what is driving risk in food. As we see risk factors become apparent we might have to add data.”

The other is that use of the system will not be mandatory and the FSA does not expect an overnight change: it currently has 10 councils onboard, aims to increase this to 40 by the end of March and have all using it by spring of next year. It is engaging with both groups and the food industry to promote take-up, but this is going to depend on the councils and MIS providers making some changes to take the data.

Wide variation

“We recognised the challenge because of the number of local authorities and the wide variation in IT,” Pierce says.

“Even though there is a small number of MIS providers there may be different versions of their software, they may be on-premise or in the cloud, and they may be using emerging technology

“It’s a little bit lumpy; they come on in groups. Once you get another MIS provider you get all their local authorities coming on, or if they are in a shared service they will come on together. For a local authority to come onboard you need the MIS provider onboard; you have to get both saying yes.”

The project is part of the FSA’s Unified View programme, aimed at giving it a much more complete picture, and one that it can categorise and dissect as it wishes, of registrations and trends in food service operators around the country.

“The Unified View is referring to the fact that we can look at information that spans local authorities,” Pierce says. “If there is a business that has multiple outlets you can see that across authorities, or can look at urban areas, or specific sectors such as small cafés. We have the flexibility to decide what we want to look at.

“It is a set of services bringing the data back from local authorities to us. It gives us a platform to integrate other datasets and see what insights we can obtain on a business, a sector or a general trend. The Unified View is the set of services bringing the data back from local authorities to us.

“Technically it’s a set of services to provide APIs to bring the data in and others to publish to different types of user.”

API factor

Again much of it revolves around APIs. The FSA has been using those on local authorities’ systems to collect data, but it is now involved in an overhaul to improve the quality based on prevailing good practice, aimed at making it easier to access and manipulate the data.

It also involves what Pierce describes as innovative work around understanding and rationalising the addresses of food service operators, and working with the Office of National Statistics on comparing their registers.

Another big element of the FSA’s work is in publishing a lot of the information it collects as open data. At the moment this amounts to about 70% of the data it holds, with the default being that any dataset should be published, and that it challenges any data owner to produce a reason why it should be kept internal.

Pierce is an advocate of the cause and says the agency will continue to work on this basis, but suggests it is close to the limit of what is feasible.

“I think we’ve probably reached the limit of what we can publish,” she says. “While there are all these new datasets coming along, I don’t think we’ll see many more for open data.

“There are those like our personal staff record that are privacy sensitive, and there is some data coming from outside that we have to hold back. For example, every single place that serves food has to be registered, which includes military and other sensitive sites for which we have to hold back the information.”

She adds, however: “It’s not a binary decision and some data could be anonymised.”

Blockchain pilot

The FSA is also aiming to push some boundaries with its pilot project in the use of blockchain technology to authenticate the source of food products. This has focused on the source of cattle going to abattoirs, with the information shared with a number of partners in the food business. Among other things, it enables the agency to track the movements of animals and farmers to see their health at the time of slaughter.

Pierce says the early results have been encouraging, although it will be a while before a decision is made on taking it any further.

“Everybody gets some value from it,” she says. “We get access to the data we need as the regulator, the abattoir puts man hours into entering data into multiple systems – it’s available for them to use – and the farmers can see whether they are providing a high quality product.  And the manufacturer gets feedback on what does and doesn’t work.

“The blockchain pilot is still being used by a number of abattoirs, and we are in discussions to see whether we should put it into wider operation or close it down. We will be having those conversations over the next few months. We’ve just commissioned an external consultant to review the pilot and we’ll wait to see what they tell us.”

She also sees the potential for the FSA to increase its use of machine learning. It is currently using it as part of a surveillance programme on food safety risks, drawing on the technology to develop a predictive capability.

“It’s early days but we are seeing in some areas that we are getting very good value out of it. I think it’s definitely going to be a growth area for us.”

Brexit and crime

Other activities include working on a handful of systems to cope with the UK’s impending departure from the EU and developing technology services to supports its National Food Crime Unit.

“At the moment we have a central function collecting intelligence on food crime, but from the end of March we want an investigation function, like a small police force, to collect intelligence and depending on what it tells them to decide to investigate further, pull it together as a case and take it to prosecution.

“We’re implementing the technology required to implement that investigation and case management function. It will be looking at different data sources to see what is going on and whether there is a possibility of crime being committed. It’s managing all of that data as evidence and ensuring it can’t be tampered with.

“It’s a big piece of work but we will stand up the minimum viable product by the end of March.”

Alerts

Underlying the ambitions is an understanding that APIs are going to play a central role in the FSA’s digital and data projects. Pierce points to another service in which an API is crucial, for food manufacturers to pass on alerts when they realise something could have gone wrong with one of their products. This makes it possible for the FSA to quickly pass on alerts to the public through Twitter, text, and its relationship with bodies such as allergy charities.

“As it comes out in the same way it’s easy for anyone else to consume it,” she says. “We make sure the API is properly managed, serviced, documented so people can be confident it will always be there and always work.”

This is a core activity which is going to contribute to much of what the agency does in the future.

“We’re looking to deploy them wherever they make sense. They are absolutely fundamental to our IT and data strategy.”

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