Today the CDEI publishes its report on local government use of data during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The report draws together the findings of a forum discussion hosted last year with local authority representatives, and is supplemented by individual interviews and desk research, as well as new research into public attitudes towards local data use.
The forum was the first in a series of AI Forums, in which we invite a range of experts from academia, industry and civil society to discuss the most pressing issues relating to data-driven technology. Our aim through these debates is to identify areas of consensus and disagreement, highlight outstanding research questions, and give an indication of what might be required to maximise the benefits of AI and data use in a given setting.
In our forum, we sought to understand how data use had changed in local authorities since the outset of the pandemic, including lessons learned and ambitions for the future, and how recent achievements and new practices might be maintained and improved upon beyond the duration of the pandemic.
The developments of the past nine months have created unprecedented challenges for local government. Since the first lockdown began in March 2020, local authorities across the country have been forced to take decisive action to keep their residents safe, support local businesses, and find new ways of delivering services at a distance.
Although the crisis is ongoing and the outcomes remain to be seen, local authorities told us that better use of data has been important in helping them to rise to the challenge and respond effectively. This has included acquiring new data that they did not have access to previously, and deploying existing data in novel ways. In the summer of 2020, the CDEI collated some examples of these use-cases - they can be found here.
What did we find?
The outbreak of COVID-19 has led to substantial positive developments in the use of data by local government. Faced with a once in a generation public health crisis, local authorities have sought novel ways of keeping their residents safe while continuing to deliver public services at a distance - and data-driven interventions have played a key role in these efforts. Examples include:
- Hackney Council’s attempts to combine internal and external datasets for the first time to help them identify residents who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 as an illness.
- The use of the ‘VIPER’ tool by local authorities in Essex, which has enabled emergency services to share data in real time during the pandemic.
- Local authorities have used granular postcode-level data on infection rates to inform outbreak containment plans and to help them target messages to residents in at risk neighbourhoods.
While we expect the positive nature of changes in data use to be true across many authorities, the scale of change may be less for those without dedicated data teams, or those authorities that were less developed in their data use practices going into the pandemic. With a range of data maturity levels across local authorities, for some the improvements made necessary by the pandemic may have simply been learning the fundamentals, putting them in a better starting position for the future.
According to the participants at our forum discussion, local authorities have had more success in changing how they deploy existing datasets than in acquiring or sharing data with central government or local service providers. The exception is the sharing of health data, which has changed significantly.
Will the momentum be maintained?
Participants in our discussion were confident that their data use practices had changed for the better since the start of the crisis, noting that it had altered attitudes at different levels of the organisation. However, there was some nervousness that the momentum generated over the last year could easily be lost, and that data use behaviours could revert to the pre-pandemic status quo.
Local authorities also have to grapple with long-standing barriers to data-driven innovation. Participants made reference to skills gaps, budgetary constraints, poor technical practice, and a lack of legal clarity regarding how data can be used.
The challenge facing local authorities, however, is not just to use data well, but to use it in a manner that is consistent with the values and expectations of their residents. Good data governance was top of mind for all our participants, yet it was clear that many saw the potential for improvement in their procedures and practices.
Maintaining this momentum is desirable in many cases and participants felt that there were aspects of the new ways of working that should be retained. However, it should be noted that practices that are justified in a pandemic are not automatically justified in business as usual, and it should not be taken for granted that retaining access to certain data outside of an emergency context is necessarily beneficial or, indeed, ethical.
In the forum we discussed a number of ways that data teams could address these barriers on their own, for example, by finding better ways of articulating the value of their data programmes. Yet progress is unlikely to be made without commitments from senior leaders in local authorities, and support from central government and other external organisations.
It is promising to see that a number of organisations have already stepped up to support and encourage the continuation and growth of good data use in local authorities. For example, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) launched a COVID-19 Challenge Fund for digital and data projects that help with the pandemic response and recovery. Eleven projects have been awarded a share of the £800,000 fund.
For its part, the CDEI will continue to explore ways of helping local authorities to maximise the data at their disposal. In doing so we will seek to highlight the best practice that is often hidden below the surface, as well as to draw in insights and lessons from other sectors. We are particularly keen to help local authorities that are less mature in their use of data, including rural and district councils, which tend to be overlooked in discussions such as these.