Can better data lead to better decisions for local councils?

October 25, 2021   By Dr Mark Green

Mark Green, from the award-winning Local Data Spaces project, looks at how to improve data sharing to increase impact in your area.

Getting the right data, into the right hands, at the right time, has been a major challenge during the Covid-19 pandemic.

If you’ve ever been confused by the sheer amount of data out there, spare a thought for those in local councils trying to make sense of it all and make the right decisions that protect the lives of their communities.

One Local Authority official told us that they had been in “fire-fighting” mode since the start of the pandemic, with no time or resource to take a step back and think about how they could approach their data differently.

Making better use of data

While Local Authorities have access to a wide variety of data, they weren’t always making the best use of those data held outside of their local areas. Sharing data from new and existing national surveys (e.g., Covid-19 Infection Survey) might help bring new data to enable better local decisions. These data were held in a secure online platform that Local Authorities did not have access to.

Local Data Spaces, a pilot initiative set up by ADR UK, ONS and Joint Biosecurity Centre, was established to help local authorities make better sense of data and open up new avenues for sourcing data to inform their local decisions.

The success and impact of our work was recognised by the ONS through winning the 2021 Research Excellence Project Award.

With the conclusion of the Local Data Spaces pilot, we take this opportunity to reflect over the successes of the project and what we need to do to support better data sharing practices.

Sharing local insights

Within 6 months, the Local Data Spaces team were able to work alongside 25 Local Authorities or regional groups to co-design how they could benefit from new sources of data.

Initial meetings quickly showed that Local Authorities found it difficult to articulate specific research questions, especially due to the “invisible” nature of data held behind a secure online platform.

To remedy this, we produced short data insights reports to show the “art of possible”. These allowed us to start conversation over specific needs, as well as refine existing analyses.

The outcome of these discussions were 10 short reports, covering diverse topics including:

  • Differences in Covid-19 prevalence by occupational groups
  • Vulnerability of local areas to the economic shock of the pandemic
  • Demographic, social and geographical differences in who got tested
  • Mobility and flows of people across different types of trips

All of these reports are freely available to download here (free account needed).

An example report, allowing users to compare COVID-19 by work sector for England (green) to residents in Leeds (purple).

Supporting local policy, enabling national action

Through, we were able to help respond to specific policy requests through undertaking bespoke analysis on their behalf.

One example of this relates to our support for the “mass testing” pilot in Liverpool (November 2020). With access to timely data from NHS Test and Trace and mortality records, we were able to provide evidence of inequalities in the uptake of testing and insights on improving the locations of test sites.

The data and evidence supplied by Local Data Spaces fed into discussions about the national roll-out of lateral flow testing in England, supporting our ability to re-open workplaces and schools.

The Local Data Spaces team were also able to flexibly respond to rapid calls for evidence to support national policy decisions. For example, due to our unique access to the COVID-19 Infection Survey we could supply evidence to SAGE on differences in risk between young males and females.

Improving data sharing practices

To support the 2020 National Data Strategy’s goal of improving how we use data in local and national government, there needs to be a systems-wide change to how data is used.

Local Data Spaces provided one approach for introducing new infrastructure for supporting data access. However, many of the barriers that we experienced were largely not infrastructure-related.

Local Authorities appreciated resources that helped them interpret and use outputs, in particular how what types of decisions can be made based on data insights. Walking through outputs, including people of differing levels of confidence in data, helps to show the value of data.

Language barriers were also frequent, not because of accent, dialect, or language, but because of differences in shared terminology or cultural approaches to work. Spending time to understand and discuss differences helps to avoid later missteps.

If we are to improve how to use data in government, then we need to support the range of “soft” options for how we can use and interpret data as well.

Dr Mark Green is Senior Lecturer in Health Geography at the University of Liverpool.

Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash

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