Modern slavery detection plan triumphs in UK Data Challenge

By on 27/03/2023 | Updated on 27/03/2023
A photograph of the winning team in the 2023 Civil Service Data Challenge
The Project Heyrick team celebrate their win. David Vinnicombe is third from left. Photo Ben Plesser

A plan to use data to detect incidents of modern slavery has come first in the UK Civil Service Data Challenge, securing £50,000-worth of development support to take the project to the next stage.

At the ‘Dragon’s Den’-style Data Challenge final on Thursday, the four finalist teams each had 15 minutes to present their ideas, then 10 minutes to field questions from a judging panel led by civil service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm.

The winning idea, named Project Heyrick after 19th century Quaker philanthropist and anti-slavery campaigner Elizabeth Heyrick, involves drawing on a wide range of datasets to spot possible indicators of modern slavery, helping to direct investigative and enforcement action. It was originally put forward by HMRC Tax Compliance Officer David Vinnicombe, and developed by a team involving staff from the Home Office, the Cabinet Office, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), and HM Passport Office.

Vinnicombe told GGF that he “felt over the moon that my team has managed to convince the judges to let our project move forward.” He and his colleagues have already carried out initial scoping work with key stakeholders, he added, and will be using the £50,000-worth of support to “begin developing a proof of concept for the Home Office commissioning board.”

Speaking immediately after announcing the winner, Alex Chisholm told GGF: “We were particularly impressed by the winning team because they had a cross-government coalition of people. Also, it was a combination of using data in order to be able to target a very hard-to-find community of people, and using it in a most practical way.”

Noting that Simon Bourne, the chief digital, data and technology officer at the Home Office – which is responsible for tackling modern slavery – was among the judges, Chisholm noted that Bourne will “have a great opportunity to be able to keep an eye on this project, to help them when they run up against unexpected obstacles, and also to champion it across the enforcement community – which is really important.”

The Civil Service Data Challenge, now in its second year, is run by the Cabinet Office, the Central Digital and Data Office, the Office for National Statistics, Global Government Forum and NTT DATA UK&I. Under the programme, civil servants are invited to put forward their ideas for how government could make better use of data, or to volunteer to join a project team. A judging panel of senior civil service data leaders selects the eight most promising ideas, and interdisciplinary, cross-departmental teams of civil service volunteers are formed to research and develop the ideas – facing the judging panel at semi-final and final events.

This year’s finalists presented a wide range of ideas. Besides the Heyrick Project, there were plans to share HMRC data on self-employment earnings with the Child Maintenance Service, reducing child poverty; to create a digital environment for testing policy ideas, incorporating gamification and rewards to attract users; and to use historic data on HMRC internal mail redirections to train an AI system, much reducing delays and cutting costs in mail handling.

The Data Challenge provides a way to draw on the expertise, enthusiasm and inventiveness of civil servants across the workforce, and to give promising ideas the time, resources, connections, and interest from senior leaders required to move them towards implementation. Its creation of interdisciplinary, cross-departmental teams is a powerful driver of its success, said Chisholm: “It’s impossible to achieve anything as an individualist” in government, he commented. “Multidisciplinary teams bring together people with insight about the customer experience, people with policy experience, with operational responsibilities, with technologists and data experts. This competition has been a way to make the most of those potential opportunities and take some of them from theory to reality.”

Indeed, the winning team expanded in January, following the semi-final – when Vinnicombe recruited people with relevant skills and contacts from the teams that fell at that hurdle. “We spotted that we were short in experience in a couple of areas and expanded the team in January with wonderful expertise joining the team,” he wrote in a blog. “Because we all come from different areas of government, we bring different perspectives and expertise to the table helping us create a rounded winning solution.”

Judges Alex Chisholm (centre), Vicki Chauhan (left) and Megan Lee Devlin (right), chief executive of the Central Digital and Data Office, react during questions to the winning team

The judges’ questions at the semi-final are another important element of the process, helping to steer the teams’ work during the second stage of idea development. “The thing that really works best about this competition is that you can take an idea which is half-formed, and then you knock it into shape,” commented Chisholm. “By the time we get to the final, they’re all almost ready to go. I was really pleased to see that three of the four finalists from last year are still out there in the wild, doing their great work. And I hope to see that this year as well.”

Among last year’s finalists, two are now at an advanced stage of delivery. The winning idea proposed using AI to identify drainage channels from aerial photography of peatlands, guiding restoration work to preserve these delicate habitats and avert CO2 emissions. Another finalist’s idea is now up and running, with the creation of a FCDO dashboard using dozens of data sources to track the distribution of UK citizens overseas.

Vicki Chauhan, head of public sector at NTT DATA UK&I, commented: “The Civil Service Data Challenge has achieved some remarkable things to date – tapping into the unrealised potential of the civil service workforce, providing a channel for good ideas to receive the attention and development they deserve. As with last year’s event, deciding a winner for this second year of the Civil Service Data Challenge has been incredibly difficult; all the pitches were really strong. However, alongside my fellow judges, I am very much looking forward to working closely with Project Heyrick to develop the idea and turn it into reality.”

Cabinet Office Minister Alex Burghart MP, who attended the final to praise the programme and encourage the teams, said: “The importance of data in delivering a digitally transformed government and improving people’s lives cannot be understated. This exciting project, which is creating a data dashboard to help identify and tackle modern slavery, shows the civil service at its very best and I’m looking forward to seeing how the project develops.

“Despite this being only the second year of the Data Challenge, we are already seeing tangible benefits delivered to the public. The government will continue to use its ideas to drive efficiency, improve public services and help tackle some of the most pressing challenges in our society.”

The judges’ decision comes two weeks after the government introduced its Illegal Migration Bill, which aims to block asylum applications by all those arriving via unofficial routes – including the victims of modern slavery. The Bill was criticised by former PM Theresa May, who while home secretary pushed through the Modern Slavery Act to protect such people.

Slaves will be “collateral damage” of the new Home Office policy, May argued in the Commons earlier this month. “As it currently stands we are shutting the door on victims being trafficked into slavery here in the UK,” she said. “The Home Office knows this bill means genuine victims of modern slavery will be denied support.”

Watch out for more coverage of this year’s Data Challenge: we will return to see how the teams have pursued their ideas in the months after the final.

Want to write for GGF? We are always looking to hear from public and civil servants on the latest developments in their organisation – please get in touch below or email [email protected]

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.

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