UK commissions AI firm to support COVID-19 housing analysis

By on 12/06/2020 | Updated on 12/06/2020
AI firm Faculty will apply data science and machine learning to examine COVID-related housing issues for the UK’s MHCLG. Picture courtesy of Albert Bridge

A UK government department has appointed an Artificial Intelligence company to help it identify and analyse new data sources, supporting its coronavirus response. London-based AI firm Faculty will provide the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) with data scientists to investigate “alternative data sources” such as social media, utility and telecom bills, and credit rating agencies, the contract says.

MHCLG has not released full details of its arrangement with the company. “Faculty is helping MHCLG to analyse data in real-time allowing the department to monitor the impact of Covid-19 on local communities and respond to emerging issues at pace,” a spokesperson for the MHCLG told Technology news site Digit. The published contract has been partly redacted, with the section stating “three areas where immediate support is required” blacked out; the ministry says the redacted information relates to sensitive data.

Deliverables listed in the contract include the “rapid discovery of needs and review of datasets”, as well as a “review of data sources and how to access them, especially alternative non-governmental data sources.” At least some of the work relates to housing, with information identified as “relevant and valuable for monitoring and forecasting indicators of rental market stress” being fed through “a set of live data pipelines.” It may involve assessing the number of people falling behind with rent payments and at risk of homelessness at a local level, according to a report in the New Statesman.

The contract says the work is likely to require the creation of “interactive dashboards which summarise the above activities into an easily consumable interface to inform policymakers,” as well as “production-ready code deployed in MHCLG systems to allow for the ongoing execution of the monitoring and prediction processes”.

Links into government

Faculty was awarded the £400,000, three-month contract, entitled ‘Data scientists for MHCLG Covid-19 response’, after it was the only company to make a bid in April. An MHCLG spokesperson told Digit there is an “urgent need to bring in additional analytics support to help inform our response to the coronavirus pandemic”.

Faculty worked with PM Boris Johnson’s lead special adviser Dominic Cummings on the Vote Leave campaign in 2016, and was founded by Marc Warner – whose brother Ben is a data scientist currently working with Cummings. It has been awarded a total of at least nine government contracts in the past two years, the Guardian reported.

On Friday, Open Democracy revealed that Faculty has recently been awarded a £1m (US$1.3m) contract to provide AI services for the NHS. It is one of the tech companies which have been granted access to NHS data in the COVID-19 datastore project, which the government says will provide a “single source of truth” about the epidemic, supporting work to help stop its spread.

About Natalie Leal

Natalie is a freelance journalist whose work has been published by The Sun Online, The Guardian, Novara Media, Positive News, and Welfare Weekly, among others. She also writes reports and case studies on global business trends for behavioural insights agency, Canvas8. Prior to working as a journalist Natalie worked for the public sector in social services for several years. She switched careers in 2013 after winning a fully funded NCTJ in a national writing competition. She holds a Masters degree in social anthropology from Sussex University where she specialised in processes of social change and international conflict and reconciliation processes.

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