Data scientists needed to ‘sift local councils’ information goldmine’

The Government Digital Service (GDS) should ringfence £4m, which is less than 1% of its £450m budget, to embed data scientists in local councils to help sift their data goldmines and improve services, says innovation foundation Nesta.

The call comes as Nesta and the Local Government Association (LGA) today publish Wise Council: Insights from the cutting edge of data-driven local government, which details how local councils are already using data to make their services more effective, manage budget cuts and support the local economy. While the report reveals that councils are increasingly sophisticated in how they gather, manage and use data, many are only just starting to get to grips with its potential.

In its accompanying recommendations Nesta argues that co-locating data analysts and scientists in frontline council teams could improve day-to-day services such as recycling and council tax collection by speeding up processes, minimising replication and making existing information more easily accessible. An existing scheme within Newcastle City Council’s social care unit has already resulted in better support for families by matching them through data analysis with social workers who are specialised in dealing with their needs.

Recommendations for policymakers also include creating a knowledge transfer scheme for existing best practice and requiring city regions bidding for devolved power to set up an Office of Data Analytics as part of any settlement.

Examples of how councils are using data in new and novel ways, published in Wise Council, include:

  • Bristol City Council: Using plastic sensor-equipped frogs to collect data which help residents report and manage damp in their properties
  • Birmingham City Council: Reading data from temperature sensors on roads in the city to inform where gritting vans are required in bad weather conditions
  • Leeds City Council: An open data portal for councils in the North of England creates transparency and frees up officer time from the burden of Freedom of Information requests. Has also resulted in the creation of an app for local residents that helps them to put the right bin out on the right collection day

Tom Symons, principal researcher in government innovation at Nesta, commented: “Councils are sitting on a treasure trove of potential insights on the communities in which they operate. While many councils are already using it to make services more effective and targeted many more are only just waking up to its potential. Embedding experts within these councils could be the catalyst for the culture change we need to see if they are to stay one step ahead of budget cuts and meet people’s evolving needs.”

Wise Council: Insights from the cutting edge of data-driven local government and the accompanying recommendations are available at www.nesta.org.uk.

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