Technology is developing to make it easier for public sector bodies to build a strong analytics capability, writes Chris Howarth, local government lead at Alteryx
There is now a widespread recognition of the value of data analytics in the effort to deliver services for the public good, but also of the public sector’s struggle to attract people with the relevant skills.
It is a highly competitive market in which the sector cannot match the salaries of many commercial enterprises, especially when moving into the more complex field of data science.
But there is a way through the problem – which a number of organisations are now exploring – through exploiting a low code software platform to build a strong analytics capability.
This was one of the main topics to emerge from a recent UKA Live discussion on value in public sector data, staged with Alteryx and involving Pam Colby, senior manager for policy, performance and research at North Tyneside Council, Dr Johanne Parker, information and intelligence manager at Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council, and Salman Klar, insight and analytics manager for Richmond and Wandsworth Councils.
It brought out the point that analytics in public services can not only make a positive difference to people’s lives, but has actually saved lives in areas such as public health and safety. This became apparent to many during the Covid-19 pandemic, in which analytics were used to identify vulnerable individuals and groups and ensure that councils, NHS bodies and community groups co-ordinated their support more effectively.
There has been a great example of this in Stockton-on-Tees, where the council has developed a vulnerable children’s database that pulls together data from different sources and enables senior officials to identify common factors and locations in targeting resources to keep the children safe. It has also developed a community safety dashboard to help its officials respond to anti-social behaviour in the borough.
As organisations work on developing such resources, they have an option that is proving the case in the form of the Alteryx Analytics Automation Platform.
It includes a wide range of pre-built tools for processes such as data access, ETL (extract, transform, load) to copy, combine and convert data from different sources and formats, the addition of geospatial data and the automation of machine learning functions – all with the code already written. This enables an organisation to build a workflow for data sharing and analytics through configuration of the platform, without the need for in-depth coding skills.
It can be used for any type of data from any source and for exporting it to visualisation tools such as Microsoft Power BI and Tableau, laying the ground for a wide range of analytics and the application of data science. This deals with one of the major challenges in data analytics and contributes to an intelligent, evidence based approach to policy making and to delivering better outcomes for the organisation and the public.
Ease of analysis
The discussion highlighted advantages of such a platform. One is in making it easier to run business intelligence analysis, taking it into areas that have previously been too difficult, without a big investment in new data science skills.
It can give an organisation a new option in building skills in-house. Johanne Parker said that Stockton-on-Tees has been encouraging people from different teams to use the Alteryx platform and analysis tools to, bringing their understanding of relevant services to the process and adding to their skills.
Similarly, Pam Colby said it has encouraged North Tyneside to step up its internal recruitment, providing an incentive for bright people in lower level jobs to develop their capabilities, and in taking in apprentices to develop in relevant roles.
It can help to develop the analytics capability more quickly, providing insights that lead to significant savings and better services, and contribute to policy making in dealing with major long term challenges around demographic change, environmental sustainability, clean energy and mobility-as-a-service.
Of course, there are issues that need to be addressed, such as ensuring compliance with data protection law. Salman Klar said it is advisable to give analysts training in an understanding of the General Data Protection Regulation, and that a data controller has to be able to see the end-to-end process in how it is used.
Business case challenge
Building a business case for the investment can be a challenge. The main driver is often in the search for savings – something on which Alteryx places an early emphasis in its client conversations – but there is often a killer use case connected to a specific service. This could be in an area such as child protection or identifying vulnerable adults, or in reducing fraud.
The priority is to identify an issue that is causing the organisation some pain and showing how the platform can be used to find a solution.
Underlying all this is the need to maintain a clear vision of the purpose of using the data, and good practice in its collection, storage and handling, so it is kept safe and deleted when no longer needed.
Combining these factors with the features of the Alteryx platform can ease the path to a strong analytics capability for a public sector body, and do a lot for the cause of using data for the public good.
Watch the full discussion below (or here):