Covid-19 has encouraged places to look for new sources of knowledge and new tools, but a lack of cohesiveness is limiting what can be done.
Like all of us, local authorities have had to adapt in the face of a great deal of uncertainty since March. One of those has been the way in which they’ve used data to get key insights in dealing with the Covid-19 crisis. We discussed this issue at our third Economic Recovery Forum, bringing together councils from across the UK to share experiences and best practice.
The forum pointed to three key ways that councils are using data and technology to respond to the pandemic:
Take Newcastle for instance: over the years the council had developed a strong working relationship with the University of Newcastle. The two had already worked together to establish a network of footfall sensors across the city. When social distancing measures were put in place, they leveraged this existing infrastructure to pull together ‘How busy in toon?’ an interface that reveals how busy the city centre is and offers a view on how easy it might be to maintain distance in such a setting. So far, the website has been used to provide information to users so that they can make an informed choice on whether they want to go into the city centre or not. The council is now exploring what data they could add to determine whether social distancing is being maintained or not, an important question the users would like an answer to.
In Greater Manchester, having data infrastructure already in place increased what could be done and accelerated the pace at which it could be delivered. The 2015 devolution agreement saw the creation of the Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership. The digital strand of the organisation has been working on acquiring and connecting relevant datasets from various angles and sources. This meant that when the situation arose, the organisation was able to very swiftly refocus to undertake a range of new activities. Over the last few months, the existing capability has helped them deploy projects to: understand the infection rate at a more local level; identify and target support to the old and the vulnerable; and sign on and match volunteers to those that needed support.
Both these instances illustrate the importance of local authorities exploring and understanding the various sources and tools available to them, even if the use case might not be immediately apparent.
Many local authorities have stated that they would find it helpful to have access to the local breakdown of centrally held data. The government has published, through the ONS, numbers on the take up of coronavirus related support such as the Job Retention Scheme, by place or by industry. Echoing our own requests, councils would like to have this data cut by both place and industry so they can get a better idea of which businesses in their local area are struggling and need help. On that front, they also said that a repository of businesses in a place would also be helpful.
Looking beyond the present moment, many of our participants fed back that they would welcome standardisation of how local and national governments organise and share data. For instance, socio-economic data is most often available at the local authority level whereas health data is collected for commissioning groups. This makes it very difficult to connect the two datasets and understand how the two dimensions may be related. In addition, local authorities themselves acquire data that may be different and organised differently from each other which leads to a patchwork of approaches across the country. Setting standards and protocols centrally would go some way in remedying the variance while also giving space for flexibility. In the long-term this would help them develop a better understanding of the ways in which Covid-19 has affected them locally, and how they are recovering.
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