Data now, not later: why real-time information represents a step change for policymakers

By on 07/11/2022 | Updated on 07/11/2022
The ONS's Fiona James says collaboration, transparency and value exchange are vital if the benefits of real-time data are to be realised. Image by Mohamed Hassan via Pixabay

Real-time data enables governments to keep track of events and trends as they shift, and has important applications in policy design work and the delivery of public services. At a recent CTS webinar, public and private sector experts discussed the opportunities – and the ethical implications

High-quality, timely data contains invaluable insight that can be used by governments to improve policies and the delivery of public services, but too often delays in acquiring and analysing datasets causes such insight to be lost.

For the data that government collects to be meaningful and actionable, it needs to be provided if not in real time then at least faster, so that policymakers can make decisions based on understanding the situation – whether it be a power-cut, a pandemic or an economic downturn – as it is, not as it was. To recognise and explore the opportunities of timely data, public and private sector experts gathered for a webinar hosted by cloud technology specialists CTS.

The webinar’s panellists began by offering a number of examples of how collecting and analysing real-time data could be used for positive outcome.

In recent years, CTS has helped many organisations modernise applications that depend on data, including the UK Department for Transport’s LENNON, which records ticket sales from train network franchises. To do this, CTS moved ticket sales data to the cloud, which according to the company’s account manager Alison King, meant “insights could be gained simultaneously, and much, much quicker than was done before”.

Alison King

King also pointed to the UK Office of National Statistics (ONS) which has started using retailer point-of-sale data and web scraping techniques to get more timely information about inflation – providing insights that can be used to protect the most vulnerable citizens as prices rise.

Next, Sue Bateman, interim chief data officer at the UK’s Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO), offered an example of where data had been especially useful recently – in assessing the UK government’s stock of accommodation available to refugees fleeing Ukraine and other conflict areas.

This involves the analysis of datasets from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and local authorities. And the government could soon bring a real-time aspect into the mix.

The idea to do so was submitted by officials to this year’s Civil Service Data Challenge, which aims to develop new data uses across the UK government. The civil servants behind the idea propose that a platform presenting real-time data on available rooms across the government estate and among private providers would both cut administrative costs and help government find suitable accommodation much more quickly.

There is now “more nuance and knowledge about the different kinds of data that can be used” and “pockets of innovation where organisations are starting to recognise the value of data in the context of digital transformation,” Bateman said.

The next step is for the CDDO and other agencies to raise awareness of better data practices across government, and to make speedy data analysis the norm. This ambition is baked into the UK’s new digital transformation strategy, which was launched by the CDDO in June.

Sue Bateman

“Our vision is around recognising that if we’re going to really make good use of data, we need to make that discoverable and available,” Bateman said.

She pointed again to the Civil Service Data Challenge, of which she is a judge. Being part of it helps her to frame what the CDDO is doing centrally from a strategic perspective and bring it back to the opportunities around improving public services.

“There is a wealth of untapped ideas that are coming through in this year’s [Data] Challenge showing that individuals and teams are spotting that connection between different types of data and their applicability to different challenges,” she said.

Staying on the pulse

The ONS have a special interest in data insights, demographics in particular. Fiona James, ONS chief data officer and director of data growth and operations, explained that there are two main approaches to maintaining its role as a trusted data-driven agency. Firstly, it uses rapid assessment and new commercial data sources to produce robust official statistics. And secondly, it uses a range of innovative methods to produce quick insights that inform priorities and decisions based on an understanding of people’s behaviours and attitudes.

Such data can’t be pulled from existing systems in real time, James said. Instead, it is gathered by talking to people directly about real issues through surveys, the results of which go on to influence top officials in government.

She gave an example, “We ran a series of surveys on Ukrainian nationals arriving in the UK, considering how they are settling in and integrating into life in the country. That included talking to the sponsors to understand the intentions for the longer term, as well as what impact the cost of living is having on them. And that informs ministerial discussions on our humanitarian response published both in English and Ukrainian”.

In order to compile official statistics, she explained that the ONS must make sure the data it uses is fresh, plentiful, comparable, and most importantly always 100% accurate, given that big funding decisions and legal commitments are made based on it.

Fiona James

Getting real-time data is one of several competing priorities for ONS. However, James explained that the agency aims to make it a bigger priority going forward. “We want to continue to grow the data and the integration of that data and be able to use even more real-time data,” she said.

“We’re also looking to build a new world of population estimates, rethinking the role of censuses all together to develop a more agile responsive statistics system that can provide real-time data, which reflects regional variations and gives more insights than the current census is able to.”

Essential to realising these ambitions, James said, is collaboration, transparency, and value exchange. “We need to pilot new ways of working which helps streamline the existing landscape and innovate in the way that we all use and access data.”

Read more: Barriers to public sector data sharing – and how to overcome them

Jean-Francois Perras, director, UKI business development – public sector at Google Cloud, touched on James’ point about collaboration. “[Government] makes data available to people, to the citizen, and we [Google] do the same thing. I think you could learn from us, and we could learn from you,” he said.

As a collaborator, Google has the advantage of gathering and understanding data at scale, Perras said, explaining that the tech giant offers nine services that have more than a billion users, and that its real-time data services (such as Google Maps and Google Trends) are undeniably world leading. Governments have much to learn from the data baked into its services, he said, such as that to have come out of a Google AI study into people’s online searches during flu season, when symptom searches tend to spike.

Geospatial data – a world of opportunity

Talk turned to the potential of geospatial data, a subset of location data which allows data to be collected with associated time and place. The Geospatial Commission, part of the UK Cabinet Office, works with multiple partners to accelerate high-value location data transformation. As well as setting policy, it supplies the public sector with co-location data such as that which appears in the Ordnance Survey.

Thalia Baldwin

According to the Commission’s Director, Thalia Baldwin, there is “an increasing ubiquity in location data’s use and a level of familiarity that’s increasing as well, in both the public and the private sector about applications”. One of the main benefits of location data is its power when combined with other types of data, and in what it tells researchers about people’s lifestyles and routines, which can in-turn inform effective policy. Such benefits were made evident during the COVID-19 pandemic when, as Baldwin said, “everything that governments [did] relied on access to live location data combined with other data”.

Whether used by a government agency or a company, real-time data that shows people’s precise physical location raises big ethical questions. To address these, the Geospatial Commission recently published a paper that is what Baldwin describes as “the ABC of ethical use” of location data.

Read more: Opinion: the ‘power of where’ – realising the potential of geospatial data

Data ethics

Picking up on the ethics debate, Perras said it is important that people have complete information about the intentions behind real-time government data services, as well as a choice about whether they consent to using them.

“A lot of people end up using [Google] services [but] some people might not decide to use some government services, because they fear ‘Big Brother’. This was the case with the [COVID-19] vaccine,” he said.

Jean-Francois Perras

Getting hold of real-time data means governments will have to rely less on educated guesswork and more on hard evidence. Yet while no one can deny the advantages of real-time data, questions pertaining to how its use affects citizens’ privacy and personal safety should not be ignored.

As civil services develop the tools and skills with which to gather and analyse real-time data, they will need to prioritise data protection and how they effectively communicate related policies to the public. Consumers have shown a broad willingness to give private companies access to their information in exchange for great products and services. The public sector will need to allay fear and reluctance if it is to strike a similar bargain. But, as Baldwin said, people are generally happy to provide data “if they know they’re getting something back for it”.   

Clearly real-time and fast-gathered data can be used in myriad ways by governments to enhance policy design and delivery, while producing better outcomes for citizens. There is a long way to go before data is used to its full potential but as the webinar panellists agreed, awareness of its benefits is increasing. Now what is needed is a focus on innovation, collaboration and privacy. By doing this, governments can tap into real-time data and harness its almost endless applications.

The webinar Getting real: how real time data can improve government services was hosted by CTS on 29 September 2022, with support from Global Government Forum. You can watch the 75-minute webinar via our dedicated event page here.

Read more: Has one US state discovered the secret to successful government data sharing?

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