Parliamentarians came together with data scientists, academics, businesses and local authorities in an event organised by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Data Analytics titled 'Data Driven Local Government'. In a thought-provoking discussion the panel discussed who should be responsible for holding publicly owned data, how citizens privacy can be best safe-guarded, and how the 'value' of council's data can be defined and passed back to citizens.
The event, which was chaired by Daniel Zeichner MP, featured on the panel; Professor Alan Penn, Dean of The Bartlett, University College London; Mike Thacker, Porism Limited; Cllr Stephen Canning, Cabinet Member for Digital Innovation, IT and Customer Services, Essex County Council; Paul Moore, UK and Northern Ireland Sales Director, Fuzzy Logix. The event was attended by both MPs and peers representing both the government and opposition.
In vigorous debate between the panel and the audience, the event confronted the difficulty faced by councils at a time in which they can leverage great benefits of the data they hold, yet are faced with budgetary constraints that prohibit their ability to make large-scale changes to digital infrastructure. Of course a key part of the discussion was also how councils could protect the privacy of their citizens whilst leveraging their data, and particularly how the value extracted from public data could be returned to constituents.
One subject that raised particular interest was the proposal from Prof. Alan Penn that councils should hand over their data to a dedicated independent body - this received coverage in DataIQ: http://www.dataiq.co.uk/news/call-dedicated-body-build-public-sector-datasets
Outlining the broad challenges of the topic, Prof. Alan Penn said:
This leaves local government with a very specific set of challenges and issues to be dealt with. One is that for an elected member of a local authority, their access to the electorate very much comes through front line services of various sorts. You see the bin collectors, your school teachers, your doctors. And these are the people who actually know their community the best as well. So the point is that the front line services which are the source of data and information. But local authorities are going to have be a lot more nimble and its going to have to think it’s way through a much more diverse and diffuse set of data assets and that creates challenges. These are around how do you gather first line responder data at the same time as delivering a job? It creates challenges around how you take very diverse data and generate anything useful and meaningful.
Speaking from his perspective inside a company providing dat solutions, Paul Moore of Fuzzy Logix said:
We've challenged the tradition methods in how we look at the data, and where we get it from, and what we do with it. One of the biggest things we’ve helped organisations with is stop moving data around - there should be one point of truth in every data model that has value. At a local level we can provide solutions that allow us to make a decision today, on our data, or at the hour or at the minute. But if we can’t get value out of that data right now, and make decisions, then it becomes a burden to any organisation.
Giving the view from a councillor faced with the daily task of dealing with a local authorities data collection, Cllr Stephen Canning said:
We have ample amounts of data that we collect every day, data that we've been collecting going back 100s of years, we store this and we maintain it and no one can really answer exactly what we're trying to do with that information or what possible use it can possibly be? One thing that we're rolling out at the moment is sensors for every single street light in Essex where we can then track atmospheric data to traffic noise. But the problem is then that I'll get all that information but what's the point!? Who is this going help and inform? So one thing we're building in Essex is a data-informed decision making. So we're going to be building a dashboard for all decisions taken in the organisation will have to have a reference back to data that we've collected.
Finally, Mike Thacker of Porism, gave some insight from his work with the Local Governments Association:
But the problem is having to take data from some 350 councils in England, where different formats are used and different definition of the same things are used, and to put that together in a meaningful way that allows us to take advantage of it. As Daniel said, these councils are strapped for cash, much as they'd like to push for standardisation, they are there to serve first and foremost their own electorate and have little other interest in doing things consistently with neighbouring councils unless someone takes the initiative.
The panel discussion also raised plenty of comments from the floor and tweets from participants during (and after) the event!