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Last month the Ministry for Communities, Housing and Local Government (MCHLG) announced a Local Digital Declaration, aimed at encouraging and supporting local governments to make the most of digital technology. Fifty places have already signed up to the declaration (which is supported by £7.5m funding), affirming their “collective ambition for local public services in the internet age, and our commitments to realising it”.
One of the five key ambitions in the declaration is the creation and adoption of open, common standards for the data that the signatories hold. This was highlighted in our most recent Delivering Change report as being important for cities to be able to make the most of digital connectivity and a recent Treasury report as one of the challenges to address to unlock the value of data in general.
Improvements to computing power, digital connections and mobile devices have exponentially increased our ability to store, analyse and access data. Floppy discs have been replaced by fibre optic cables, and IBM mainframes replaced by iPads. A decent internet connection puts an almost unimaginable amount of information and computing power at our fingertips wherever we are and whenever we want. But while the capacity of cities to capture and store data has increased dramatically, their ability to use it to improve public services has not kept pace. Knowledge and know-how are limiting digital innovation across cities rather than the provision of digital technology. Research shows that data-driven decision-making can increase output and productivity by up to 6%. In a world of rising expectations and constrained budgets, places need to tap into this opportunity.
Just as getting goods on and off ships, trains and lorries became easier with the introduction of uniform container sizes, common data standards make it easier for cities to share, integrate and build upon innovations that rely on digital technology and data.
However, at the moment, common data standards only exist in some public bodies, in a handful of UK cities. Public sector agencies hold huge amounts of data that could help understand and improve our provision of services. But most often, relevant information is dispersed across separate organisations, departments and systems and is not accessible in one place.
Manchester is showing what can be done when data is opened up in a secure way using digital connectivity – for example, in changing how the city’s social workers support the people they work with. As highlighted in Nesta’s Wise Council report, the city’s intelligent case management system brings together data from 16 different sources under a legal framework that differentiates access to information, based on who is accessing it.
Social workers have near instantaneous access to a greater quantity and quality of relevant information. Their time and efforts are therefore focused more sharply on providing the appropriate support and doing more of it. It is estimated that the new system has on average saved each caseworker 10 working days a year and this is just one of the many ways in which the data warehouse can be used. Common standards nationally would make such innovations more transferrable across councils.
In London, previously unavailable data was opened up by Transport for London (TfL) to allow external public bodies and private firms to experiment and to potentially improve the city’s transport system for its customers, residents and visitors alike. Citymapper is one of the many apps that have been developed on the back of these datasets. It brings together real-time information about travel routes, travel times and transit costs across both traditional (buses and trains for instance) and also some of the newer, more innovative forms of travel (like Uber and Ofo bikes). It is extremely popular – half of London’s travellers use it, a testament to how useful people think it is. According to Deloitte, the innovation is worth £130m in time savings to travellers, on an annual basis.
Citymapper is now operating in 39 cities worldwide (including Manchester and Birmingham in the UK) and the availability and format of data are cited as the biggest challenge for developers.
From troubled families to travel, opening up data (with the appropriate regard for security) has allowed digital connectivity to be harnessed to improve public services in cities. Having unified formats across the country would allow this to happen more often and improve the pace of diffusion. There is still so much that could be done. All local authorities signing the Local Digital Declaration would be an excellent step forward.
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