Civil Service Data Challenge Final puts innovative AI project on the road to delivery

By on 10/12/2021 | Updated on 02/02/2022

A scheme to use artificial intelligence (AI) in peatlands restoration work triumphed in the UK’s Civil Service Data Challenge yesterday, winning plaudits from a panel of top-ranking civil servants – plus a £50,000 (US$66,000) investment to put it on the path to implementation.

Announcing which of the four finalists had won the judges’ backing, Alex Chisholm – Cabinet Office permanent secretary and civil service chief operating officer, who chaired the Final Decision Panel – commented that the peatlands project “was outstandingly innovative: we’ve got the application of AI, and we’re very excited by that opportunity.”

However, Chisholm was clear that all eight of the semi-finalists’ ideas would be taken forward. “Every single one of those proposals we absolutely loved,” he said. “We want all of them to go forward; every one of the shortlisted ones… we are absolutely determined that they should happen.”

The peatland team’s plans – which involve training AI to locate drainage ‘grips’ from aerial photography, supporting work to block them and thus retain water in peatland areas – would generate AI capabilities that could be used in a range of other scenarios, Chisholm commented. The judges were also impressed by the potential to create valuable intellectual property; the scheme’s contribution to the UK’s net zero goals; the opportunity to reduce flood risk; and the very positive forecasts for return on investment, with a £288,000 (US$380,000) investment averting the need for manual work costing £6m (US$8m).

Data ideas direct to decision-makers

Under the Data Challenge programme – a partnership between the Cabinet Office, Office for National Statistics, Global Government Forum, and NTT DATA UK – civil servants were invited to send in their ideas for how government could make better use of data. Nearly 200 ideas were received, and in July interdisciplinary, cross-departmental teams of civil service volunteers were formed to research and develop the eight most promising.

The teams have since faced two panels of senior officials, pitching their ideas and answering questions in ‘Dragon’s Den’-style events. At the October Semi-Final, the judging panel comprised senior digital leaders: Alison Pritchard, deputy national statistician and the Office for National Statistics’ director general for data capability; Daljit Rehal, CDIO of HM Revenue & Customs; Cabinet Office non-exec Henry de Zoete; Joanna Davinson, executive director of the Cabinet Office’s Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO); Sue Bateman, CDDO’s deputy director for innovation; and chair Vicki Chauhan, head of public sector at NTT DATA UK.

Joanna Davinson, director of the Cabinet Office’s Central Digital and Data Office, watches a team presentation with fellow judges

At yesterday’s event, the original judges were joined by Alex Chisholm and Tamara Finkelstein, permanent secretary of the environment department and head of the policy profession. Commenting on the value of the Data Challenge format, Finkelstein – whose department oversees peatlands restoration work – noted that “it gave a way in which people could, bottom-up, think about ideas innovatively, form teams across departments and groups, and get very excited about an idea [data] that’s totally critical to transformation of the civil service.”

With her fellow judges, Finkelstein added, she’ll now work to push forward all eight shortlisted ideas. “I feel quite committed to ensuring that all those things happen, and some of them have underlying blockages,” she said. “The group of us who’ve been brought together as judges, between us we’ve got to be able to unblock those things, or find the people who can.”

From data on the distribution of UK citizen abroad to tackling benefit fraud and error: the ideas

The other three finalists – whose semi final pitches to the panel can be viewed on the Data Challenge site – put forward ideas to gather data on the distribution of UK citizens around the world, aiding disaster response; link HMRC and DWP datasets to spot fraud and error among construction workers; and track prisoners’ social contact, supporting work to tackle loneliness and isolation.

Moment of truth: Alex Chisholm, Cabinet Office permanent secretary and civil service chief operating officer, prepares to announce the judges’ decision

The winning team will now receive £50,000-worth of development work from NTT DATA UK, which has already invested around £250,000 (US$330,000) in supporting and advising the eight teams. Team member Mary Vayou – principal adviser on natural science at Natural England, who originally submitted the winning idea – recalled that she’d developed the concept after talking to colleagues “who were trying to solve this problem [of locating grips], but couldn’t because the dataset wasn’t there.”

Creating an interdisciplinary, cross-departmental team to develop the idea under the Data Challenge gave it “the time and funding” to move forwards, Vayou said. “Bringing together expertise and enthusiasm from different bits of the civil service has worked wonders to make this idea shine – this is really what’s different here,” she said, adding that the project will now help in “bridging environmental modelling with data science, which the sector really needs”.

Using data to make a difference

Her team-mate Nick Tomline, whose day job is in Natural England’s Earth Observation Team, noted that “in Natural England we’ve done some peatland mapping, but we haven’t got all the people and expertise that we’ve had available to us through this collaboration.” Asked whether the concept would have made progress outside the Data Challenge, he replied: “I don’t think it necessarily would, to be honest, because we’ve brought together all kinds of people with different backgrounds and ideas and experience and enthusiasm, and that’s really helped drive the project forward.”

Vicki Chauhan of NTT DATA UK commented: “Using data effectively is crucial to the future of the civil service and its success. The Civil Service Data Challenge was created to reflect this importance, as well as give civil servants an opportunity to demonstrate their vision and see their ideas brought to life.

“As a result, we’ve seen some incredible ideas over the course of the competition, and we now look forward to providing the winning team with a platform to realise the vision of restoring the UK’s peatlands through the application of AI technologies and contributing directly to the government’s mandate of achieving net zero.”

Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay said: “Using data to modernise public services is a top priority. This innovative project shows the civil service at its best and I’m excited to hear about how it drives CO2 reductions.”

For more information, see the Data Challenge website – where you can read synopses of the eight shortlisted ideas or browse the nearly 200 submitted.

About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

One Comment

  1. marky says:

    Funny how none of the uses for AI are aimed at ensuring the people who set up the AI system are obeying laws.

    AI seeking Middle/upper class tax fraud vs AI seeking Benefit fraud – Which one is likely to produce the most fruit?

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